Reilly criticised for leaving hearing on abortion legislation

Masters of two major maternity hospitals among those giving evidence to Oireachtas committee


The only purpose of legislation on abortion being introduced in the Dail and Seanad is to clarify what is lawfully available, Minister for Health James Reilly has said.

Dr Reilly is among 50 medical experts due to address a cross-party Oireachtas health committee on the draft legislation which, if enacted, will legalise abortion where there is a substantial risk to the mother’s life, including the threat of suicide.

The hearings into the heads of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013, began this morning in the Seanad chamber. Today’s session is scheduled to last for 10 hours, with a further 10 hours allotted for each of Monday and Tuesday.

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First to address the committee this morning was Dr Reilly, who gave an overview of the contents of the Bill before leaving the chamber without taking questions. Members of the cross-party committee criticised Dr Reilly for not staying.

“I can’t think of a more appropriate place for him to be than here in this chamber,” said Fine Gael TD Billy Timmins.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath said the situation was a farce. “The Minister ran out of the chamber,” he said.

Fine Gael senator Paul Bradford said it was “bizarre” that the Minister was not in the chamber to discuss his own legislation.

A Government spokesman defended Dr Reilly’s decision, saying the key first element in the hearings is to give members clarity on the precise meaning of the heads of the Bill.

He said Ambrose McLoughlin, secretary general at the Department of Health, and chief medical officer Tony Holohan were “well placed” to answer questions. The aim is for some witnesses to give factual answers before the committee hears any political debate on policy, he said.

In his address, Dr Reilly said the legislation would clarify what was legally available in cases where there is a real and substantial threat to the life of a pregnant woman and to set out clearly defined and specific circumstances in which this treatment can be lawfully provided.

The State would uphold the right to life of the unborn as far as practicable, Dr Reilly insisted. He also said doctors will be obliged to make every effort to safeguard the unborn and to make every effort to sustain its life after delivery where it is potentially viable outside the womb.

Doctors carrying out terminations to save the life of a pregnant woman had to do so based on reasonable opinion. Dr Reilly said reasonable opinion had to be formed in good faith and had to have regard to the need to protect the right to life of the unborn and preserve unborn human life where practicable.

In cases of suicidal ideation in a pregnant woman seeking a termination, a panel of doctors to review her case would be nominated by the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Irish College of Psychiatry, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland.

Dr Holohan said the legislation did not confer any new substantive rights to termination of pregnancy. He said the general scheme being put in place, provides for rights that already exist within Constitutional provisions and the Supreme Court decision in the X case.

They were conferring procedural rights on a woman who believes she has a life-threatening condition so that she can have certainty as to whether she requires the intervention.

The State will uphold the right to life of the unborn as far as practicable. Where a woman’s life is at risk she may have a right to have that pregnancy brought to an end but not a right to deliberately end the life of that foetus, Dr Holohan said.

He said termination had to be necessary to save the woman’s life. Termination in those circumstances would always be considered a medical intervention that operated within all the existing arrangements that pertained to other medical services and interventions.

Dr Holohan also said he had confidence in the medical profession. “I believe in the integrity and professionalism of our doctors. We have a highly trained and motivated set of doctors working in this country,” he said. “While some of the practices and behaviours of the past were not appropriate by today’s standards, our doctors and our medical colleges have shown a consistent commitment to the public interest in the work that they do.”

Dr Holohan said a review of the penalties for carrying out illegal terminations in pregnant women could be looked at in drafting the legislation. Labour senator Ivana Bacik said the creation of a criminal offence in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill falls foul of the Constitution” because the offence was “too vague and too broad”. She said the woman herself should not be criminalised.

Under head 19 of the legislation it is an offence for a person to do any act with the intent to destroy unborn human life. The section restates the general prohibition of abortion in the State and includes a fine and up to 14 years imprisonment.

Dr Holohan said it is “something we can look at in terms of drafting”.

Opening the first session, health committee chairman Jerry Buttimer stressed the Government and the Oireachtas operated and deliberated within the constraints of the Constitution.

The Cork South-Central Fine Gael TD said they were discussing a very sensitive issue and he hoped the proceedings would be conducted in a positive and constructive way. He reminded TDs, senators and witnesses that they were in the Seanad chamber and were obliged to uphold the dignity of the House.

Dr Rhona Mahony from the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street and Dr Sam Coulter Smyth of the Rotunda Hospital will give their opinions on the Bill this afternoon. The Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Irish College of General Practitioners, Irish Medical Council and Royal College of Physicians of Ireland will also be represented.

Experts in psychiatry and law will attend the hearings on Monday and Tuesday.

There has been some criticism of the composition of the witnesses. Earlier this week, three women of the Women Hurt organisation, all of whom have had abortions which they later regretted, met TDs and Senators who argued that they should also have been included in the witness list.

No church organisations nor any of the advocacy groups campaigning for and against abortion legislation have been invited.

The Bill will legislate for the 1992 X case judgment from the Supreme Court which found abortion is legal if there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, including emergency medical cases, non-emergency medical cases and the threat of suicide. The case was taken by a 14-year-old rape victim who became pregnant and wasrefused permission to travel for an abortion.

As well as that judgment, the loosening of rules is intended to meet requirements from a European court decision that found a woman in remission from cancer should not have been forced to travel overseas for an abortion.

The Government committed to reforming the ban on abortion by July following the death of Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital last year after being denied a termination during miscarriage.

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