Report takes low-key view of suicidal intentions as grounds for abortion

Wed, Nov 28, 2012, 00:00

The report of the expert group published by the Government yesterday takes a low-key approach to the issue of suicidal intentions as grounds for abortion, although this is likely to be the main issue in the coming debate.

The expert group was established following a unanimous decision by the European Court of Human Rights that Ireland was in breach of article 8 (right to private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ‘C’ case

This applied to the case of a woman, known as “C”, a Lithuanian national living in Ireland who had been treated for cancer. She became unintentionally pregnant in 2005, but was unable to find a doctor willing to make a determination as to whether her life would be at risk if she continued to term, so she travelled to England for an abortion.

The report sets out four options for the Government on abortion: 1) non-statutory guidelines; 2) statutory regulations; 3) legislation alone; 4) legislation plus regulations. The expert group sees the second and fourth options as having most advantages.

The report uses the term “suicidal ideation”, which is frequently heard in the current debate and refers to a state of mind where the prospect of taking one’s own life is being seriously considered.

The expert group points out that, in the 1992 case of the 14-year-old girl known as X, the Supreme Court accepted she had threatened to commit suicide if compelled to carry her pregnancy to full term and deemed that this threat justified terminating the pregnancy in this instance. The report notes that, subsequently, “Two referendums tried to remove suicide as a ground [for abortion] and were defeated.”

Legal precedent

It also points out that the Medical Council’s “Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics for Registered Medical Practitioners” advises doctors: “Abortion is illegal in Ireland except where there is a real and substantial risk to the life (as distinct from the health) of the mother. Under current legal precedent, this exception includes where there is a clear and substantial risk to the life of the mother arising from a threat of suicide.”

Setting out “general principles”, the report again points out that: “The Supreme Court in the X case specifically recognised risk of suicide as a legitimate basis for permitting termination of pregnancy where the other criteria were satisfied.”

It highlights the potentially useful advisory role of general practitioners when the question of abortion arises for a pregnant woman: “The GP may be able to provide valuable insight into her clinical history; knowledge which might be particularly useful when assessing a real and substantial risk to life through suicide.”

The four options

* non-statutory guidelines

* statutory regulations;

* legislation alone;

* legislation plus regulations.

The expert group sees the second and fourth options as having the most advantages.