Valuable debate complete with medical facts, figures
What was extraordinarily interesting at the committee hearings, in fact, was that these groups seemed to have lost some of their vigour.
They had moved from the mainstream to the margins of the political debate. But, it was the position of the Catholic Church that had changed most of all. There was courtesy – but no deference – shown to its representatives, Bishop Christopher Jones, chair of the Catholic Bishops’ Council for Marriage and the Family, and Fr Timothy Bartlett.
It was clear that the Catholic Church had lost its moral authority to dictate policy on the life of the unborn after the dreadful disclosures on the way that it allowed the lives of the born to be abused and sodomised over the years.
So what was new to emerge at the hearings that will influence members of the Government and the Oireachtas in their decision-making on abortion legislation and regulation? The first thing stated most emphatically by the masters of the maternity hospitals was that they would always do all in their power to save the life of the mother and the baby during pregnancy. That was their job. It was important that they stated that without equivocation.
The second was that they wanted the Government to legislate on the termination of pregnancy and repeal the criminal provisions of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act in order to protect doctors and obstetricians in the carrying out of their duties.
The president of the Medical Council, Prof Kieran Murphy, added weight to this view when he confirmed that doctors were expected to adhere to the council’s guidelines but that they were not a legal code. It will come as news to some politicians that abortion is covered in paragraph 21 of the current guidelines.
The hearings were particularly valuable because the medical representatives provided facts and figures about terminations of pregnancy in Irish maternity hospitals for the first time. There was no dispute about them. Dr Sam Coulter Smith, master of the Rotunda, said six terminations had taken place in his hospital last year. Dr Rhona Mahony, master of the National Maternity Hospital Holles Street, stated that three had taken place there. And pressed to speculate on the number nationally, they deduced that it could be as low as 10 or as high as 30.
The information on the risk of suicide during pregnancy was even more interesting. It would be fair to say that all medical experts before the committee said they were not aware of any such case in the last year. Prof Patricia Casey produced figures from a review of the three Dublin maternity hospitals 1980-2011 showing that no suicides were reported during pregnancy in that 31-year period, when 685,511 gave birth to live babies.