Doctors begin debate with call for legislation
About six pregnancies a year are terminated at the Rotunda Hospital to save the life of the mother, while three such cases occur annually at the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, the Oireachtas health committee has heard.
Dr Sam Coulter Smyth, master of the Rotunda Hospital, said between five and six cases of pregnancy termination occurred annually at his hospital, where interruption of pregnancy was required to save the mother’s life.
He also estimated the annual incidence of such cases across the country could be between 20 and 30. Dr Coulter Smyth said he believed the incidence “has risen in recent years, because of increasing age of the pregnant population, increasing complexity of illness and the rise in obesity levels”.
Speaking on the opening day of hearings in the wake of the expert group report on the European Court of Human Rights judgment against Ireland, he said the incidence of suicide in pregnancy was one in 500,000 based on UK figures.
But the incidence of pregnant women with suicidal thoughts was a lot higher.
Risk to life
Dr Rhona Mahony, master of the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street, said there were three cases where they had to intervene before the pregnancy was viable, to save the mother’s life.
She believed the national figure “to be somewhere between 10 and 20”.
She also said the interpretation of risk to life varied and questioned whether it should be “10 per cent, 50 per cent, 8 per cent, 1 per cent”. Dr Mahony said the pregnant woman would have an opinion and that should be listened to.
Dr Mary McCaffrey of Kerry General Hospital said the right to conscientious objection in the case of pregnancy termination should be accepted.
Dr McCaffrey, representing the 12 small maternity units across the State, where one-third of Irish babies are born, said: “I know that my peers will always act in the best interest of their patients in emergency situations. A person who has a conscientious objection must be allowed to follow their conscience.”
All three doctors called for legislation to protect the medical profession in carrying out their jobs.
Dr Mahony called for the repeal of the 1861 legislation on abortion saying: “Abortion in Ireland is a criminal offence which is punishable by penal servitude. That law stands today and I need to know that I will not go to jail if in good faith I believe it is the right thing to save a woman’s life to terminate a pregnancy. I want to know that I will not go to jail and I want to know by the way that she will not go to jail.”
She said she was offended “by some of the pejorative and judgmental views that women will manipulate doctors in order to obtain termination of pregnancy on the basis of fabricated ideas of suicide ideation or intent”.
While it was rare for a woman to take her life during pregnancy, appropriate treatment had to be available to those at risk.
There had been two cases of suicide in pregnancy between 2009 and 2011.
Dr Mahony said there seemed to be a notion that doctors were unable to assess the issue of suicidal thoughts, something they did every day in their clinical practice.
“I don’t believe we have the right to absolutely dismiss the risk of a woman taking her life during pregnancy.”