Suicide 'test' should now be key focus of abortion debate
The hearings on abortion legislation conducted this week by the Oireachtas health committee, far from being window dressing as some cynics originally suggested, actually performed a very important function. The presentations by experts, and indeed questioning by parliamentarians, brought much clarity on some of the central issues to be addressed in this legislation.
This was so particularly on the issue of terminating pregnancy when a mother’s life is at risk because of a threat of suicide.
Some would wish that termination on these grounds would never be available in Ireland. However, as the Constitution stands – including as it does article 40.3.3 inserted by the 1983 referendum – and as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the X case, termination on grounds of suicide risk is legally permissible in this country.
The only way that can change is if there is another referendum to change it. For this to happen those opposing termination on this ground would have to persuade a majority in the Dáil and Seanad to put a referendum in those terms (again) to the people, and then persuade a majority of voters to support this new amendment. That is just not going to happen.
The efforts of those who wish to restrict abortion here would therefore be more usefully focused in the coming months on arguing for the best possible safeguards on the so-called suicide test.
The task for the Government and the Oireachtas is to frame the legislation to provide reassurance to those concerned the suicide ground might dramatically expand the availability of abortion, while ensuring that the small number of women whom the law says should be entitled to a termination when it is the only option to save their life should be able to obtain it.
Such careful legislative framing is a difficult task but not an insurmountable one. The complexities involved were well aired at the health committee this week, but the hearings also provided some ideas on how these issues might be addressed.
Anyone seeking reassurance that the need for termination on grounds of suicide would arise in only a handful of cases, and would be competently and professionally assessed by psychiatrists, needs do no more than read or listen back to the evidence to the committee on Tuesday of Dr Anthony McCarthy, consultant perinatal psychiatrist at the National Maternity Hospital.
The most useful presentation, however, was that given by the barrister and doctor Simon Mills on Wednesday morning. Mills came along with his own draft of a Bill. It runs to just seven pages and seeks, he said, to reflect the moderate consensus on what can and should be done within the existing constitutional framework.
There is real value in actually sitting down to draft legislation. It forces one to consider exactly what policy choices are available within the existing legal framework and forces one to choose precise words and mechanisms to achieve those policy objectives. The question here was how to provide for termination on grounds of suicide within the Constitution and in particular what medical assessments should be required.