Abortion or not? Compassion requires an Eighth Amendment referendum

Constitution underpins the trauma of pregnant girl deemed at risk of suicide

Repeal the Eighth?: allowing Ireland to vote on abortion would do psychiatrists, and girls like the one at the centre of this case, a service. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

Repeal the Eighth?: allowing Ireland to vote on abortion would do psychiatrists, and girls like the one at the centre of this case, a service. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd

 

We don’t like to think about the trauma for a child of becoming pregnant, but it happens. And when it does we hope that she will be shown all the compassion and support she needs, and that our actions will not further traumatise her.

Many people’s reaction to this latest “abortion case” has been that she was failed by her first treating psychiatrist, who appears to have overridden her request for a termination, deciding it was “not the solution”.

The psychiatrist conducted a full assessment, judged that she was at serious risk of self-harm and suicide, and moved to section, or detain, her for her own safety under the Mental Health Act.

The child was transferred to Dublin believing, like her mother, that she was going to have an abortion. That she was instead brought to an adolescent psychiatric unit must have added to their trauma.

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It seems unlikely that this was the correct treatment for this girl, given that after the appointment of a guardian ad litem – who acts in a lawsuit on behalf of a child – and an assessment by two more psychiatrists, the court ruled that she was not mentally ill and was free to leave the unit.

We do not know if the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was then invoked or whether the girl went on to have an abortion. What we do know is that her fate rested in the hands of three psychiatrists.

As we don’t know the full details of the case, those who regard abortion as a solution in such circumstances must assume that the first psychiatrist acted in good faith and in his or her clinical judgment was doing what was best for the girl. One can argue that the psychiatrist should have invoked the Act – or referred the girl to a colleague who would.

Those uncomfortable with abortion as a solution when a pregnant women wants an abortion and is suicidal must assume that the second and third psychiatrists were also acting in good faith in advocating for her right to be listened to and to leave the unit for an abortion if she wished.

We know there are as many views within psychiatry about abortion as a treatment for suicidal pregnant women as there are in society generally.

John Hillery, the president of the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland, has said it’s unfair to put psychiatrists in a position where they must make judgments about whether a distressed woman or girl should have an abortion. They are “coming under fire” when people disagree with their judgment and efforts to show compassion. “It’s being put back on us in many ways, when it is a political issue that should be decided in wider society.”

Our new taoiseach would do these psychiatrists, and girls like the one at the centre of this case, a service were he to show some compassion by putting the Eighth Amendement of the Irish Constitution, which underpins much of the trauma that this girl suffered, to a referendum.

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