Medical experts' frank presentations go right to the heart of abortion debate
ANALYSIS:Predictions that yesterday’s hearings on the Government decision to legalise abortion in limited circumstances would descend into an ill-tempered talking shop did not materialise.
The chairman of the committee, Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer, and his team deserve credit for ensuring that the more than eight hours of proceedings ran in a calm and dignified manner for the most part.
Contributions from TDs and Senators on this most contentious of topics were largely measured and calm, in contrast to the ill-tempered debate that has often dominated such discussions in the past.
Anti-abortion and pro-choice Oireachtas members, who included non-committee members attending out of interest, made their views known in an atmosphere of tolerance.
Those in the middle ground, who eschew such labels, were heartened at the lack of showboating on display from their colleagues during the discussions, which took place in the intimate Seanad chamber.
The expert witnesses called before the committee impressed with their frankness about the day-to-day realities of their professions.
They made salient points that went right to the heart of the debate and, most importantly of all, provided fresh information.
Speaking afterwards, committee member and Fine Gael TD Regina Doherty said yesterday’s hearings were beneficial for all involved.
“I was actually pleasantly surprised at how much I learned. Everyone we had in front of us today had something interesting to say,” she said.
Doherty said she hoped the committee would get an opportunity to hear from GPs, who were often the first point of contact for women experiencing crisis pregnancy.
The stand-out presentation probably came from the master of the National Maternity Hospital, Dr Rhona Mahony. The head obstetrician at the Holles Street hospital, where about 27 babies are born each day, said she had come to explain why doctors needed enhanced legal protection.
She also said she was “offended” by the suggestion that women would attempt to “manipulate” their doctors “on the basis of fabricated ideas of suicide ideation or intent” in order to obtain terminations.
Committee member and Senator Prof John Crown, an oncologist, said Dr Mahony presented her case eloquently and empathically.
“She gave one of the most thoughtful expositions of professional medical ethics that I’ve ever heard. She was outstanding and inspiring,” he said.
The master of the Rotunda Hospital, Dr Sam Coulter Smith, weighed in with statistics and facts that made his audience sit up and take notice. About six pregnancies a year are terminated at the Rotunda to save the life of the mother, he revealed.
Between 10 and 15 per cent of pregnant women in Ireland presented with mental health issues, although life-threatening complications were rare. Coulter Smith also provided figures from the UK that one woman in 500,000 would take her own life during pregnancy.
Crown said all the medical doctors who appeared before the committee yesterday “made me a little prouder to be a doctor today”.
It was not all sweetness and light, however. Crown accused Prof Patricia Casey, representing the department of adult psychiatry at UCD and the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital, of straying outside her area of competency.
Predictions about the so-called “floodgate phenomenon” – Casey said legislation would bring about “widespread abortion” within a short period of time – was not something a psychiatrist should be testifying about, Crown insisted.
An unfazed Casey reiterated her view that legislating for suicide risk should not happen.
Did the experts’ evidence change anyone’s minds on the issue? Probably not, but the bar has been set high for civilised and moderate discussion.
Today various legal experts will appear to give their point of view. Two veterans of previous campaigns, Prof William Binchy of Trinity College Dublin and former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness, will conclude proceedings.
A different tone is widely expected to be struck during tomorrow’s session, which will hear from anti-abortion and pro-choice advocacy groups, but of course observers could be surprised once again.