Valuable debate complete with medical facts, figures
She did concede that it is presumed that among the 4,000 women who travel to Britain for abortions each year are women who are suicidal or potentially so. But, she said, there is no data to substantiate this claim since the UK figures do not classify suicide as a specific ground for abortion.
One of the most relevant contributions to the hearings was made by Dr Anthony McCarthy, consultant perinatal psychiatrist at the National Maternity Hospital since 1996, because he addressed the argument that legislating for the ground of suicide could “open the floodgates” to abortion. Suicide is rare in pregnancy, he said, but it does happen “and is a risk we always have to consider”.
He went to the nub of the political issue. Suicidal ideation in pregnancy – meaning that the person has ideas in their mind about ending their life – is much more common than completed suicide. There are very significant differences between suicidal ideation and suicidal intent and plans. “We are trained to assess whether patients have suicidal ideation or intention or both, to diagnose whether the person is suffering from a mental illness or not, and to make or recommend appropriate therapeutic interventions and plans,” McCarthy concluded.
It is clear from the committee hearings that suicide is the most contentious question to be addressed by the Government in its proposed legislation on the X case.
It is also clear that a number of unanticipated ancillary issues will have to be tackled. If sections of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act are repealed, for example, won’t there need to be a provision somewhere banning abortion in circumstances outside the X case? What evidence-based procedures will be put in place for medical specialists to decide that there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother during a pregnancy? These are complex issues, but there is a political appetite to deal with them, in a restrictive way, for the first time.
Geraldine Kennedy is former editor of The Irish Times. She has covered the debate on abortion since the early 1980s and attended the three days of hearings this week