Council rift over abortion could mean judicial review


Members of the Medical Council are threatening to seek a judicial review of council procedures following approval of a motion to substantially alter doctors' ethical guidelines on abortion, The Irish Times has learned.

The move is being considered by members who last week walked out of a council meeting after two motions were passed. Commenting on the second motion yesterday, Prof John Bonnar, chairman of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said: "If this is indeed the case, it would represent the most liberal position on abortion ever taken by any medical profession and it would mean that any woman presenting prior to the stage of viability [24 weeks' gestation] could be offered an abortion.

"I find that such a statement would be at variance with the position of the overwhelming majority of the medical profession in Ireland."

A further council meeting to discuss abortion has been scheduled for Wednesday, June 13th, when it is expected that legal advice will be put by both sides, with those against a softening of the guidelines considering a judicial review of procedure should last week's motions stand.

The Irish Times has obtained the wording of the motions which were put to, and passed, by the Medical Council at last week's meeting.

The first was "That the Medical Council recognises that termination of pregnancy can occur when there is a real and substantive risk to the life of the mother". When this was passed, a potentially much more controversial motion - "That the Medical Council recognises that termination of pregnancy can occur when the foetus is nonviable" - was carried.

The motions were introduced during a scheduled debate on the All-Party Oireachtas Committee Report on Abortion; the members who subsequently walked out are reported to be unhappy that no advance notice of a possible vote on the ethical guidelines was given.

Contrary to previous media reports, The Irish Times has learned that the actual vote was 12 members for and seven against on both motions.

There was a "tense but thoughtful debate" for about two hours on Wednesday evening before the two votes were taken. The walkout occurred immediately after the second vote, although some of the seven members returned to the meeting on Thursday morning.

At this point, those in favour of the status quo signalled that they would be seeking legal advice as to the procedural validity of the previous day's events.

In its submission last year to the all-party Oireachtas committee, the Medical Council did not deviate from its current ethical guidelines on reproductive medicine, which state: "The deliberate and intentional destruction of the unborn child is professional misconduct."

The council has 24 members, all but two of whom are medical practitioners. One of its functions is to produce a set of ethical guidelines which, while not having statutory force, represent advice to doctors on generally accepted standards of practice. The council is halfway through its term of office. Last week's events represent its first significant move on the substantive ethical issue of abortion.