'A Yes vote will protect doctors'
The masters of the three Dublin maternity hospitals have called for a Yes vote in the referendum on the basis that it protects obstetric practice where a woman's life is at stake.
However, they told a press conference yesterday they favour abortion being available in Ireland, under strictly controlled conditions, where the foetus could not survive outside the womb.
In a joint statement, Dr Sean Daly, Master of the Coombe Women's Hospital, Dr Declan Keane of the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street and Dr Michael Geary of the Rotunda Hospital said they believed the amendment gave protection to doctors caring for women at risk of dying as a direct result of being pregnant.
They said they were speaking in a personal capacity, rather than on behalf of the boards of their hospitals or their colleagues, some of whom had different views.
Dr Daly said: "We believe this amendment seeks to protect the lives of woman who come into our institutions. For example, if there is cancer in pregnancy, we do a hysterectomy. We have no protection in doing that at the moment.
"This amendment does not deal with all problems. But it does deal with the problem of rare threats to the lives of pregnant women."
Asked if they did not have such protection at the moment, Dr Keane said: "At present if we carry out life-saving operations on pregnant women, we are breaking the law of the land."
Asked if he was aware of any threat to prosecute any obstetrician who had carried out such an operation, he said: "No." Dr Daly said someone could take a civil action.
The three masters were asked what they thought should be done in a case such as that of Ms Deirdre de Barra, a woman carrying a foetus with a congenital abnormality that meant it could not survive outside the womb - her letter was published in The Irish Times earlier this week.
"Ms de Barra's case is very tragic and it is not an isolated one," Dr Geary said. "The current system does not address the needs of these women sufficiently. Their care and counselling is not sufficiently addressed."
Dr Keane said all the maternity hospitals offered amniocentesis (a test for foetal abnormalities). "We would all be sympathetic and would wish to help. This needs to be addressed. It is not addressed in any fashion in this amendment.
"Do not vote No for what it does not do. Vote Yes for what it does do."
Pressed on what should be done for women in this situation, Dr Keane said: "I would be keen to see it addressed in this country. When they go abroad there is no post-mortem and our ability to counsel women in this situation about future pregnancies is not addressed."
Dr Geary said: "In principle such women should be looked after."
Dr Daly said: "I broadly agree. I would need to see the wording before I would agree to it. It can be very difficult to make a statement absolutely."
Asked to comment on the statement from 10 psychiatrists on the risk of suicide in pregnancy, Dr Keane said that this was extremely rare.
Dr Geary said: "I would hope a woman would avail of our excellent psychiatric services. It is a very complex issue. We have an excellent psychiatric service."
However, he acknowledged there were divisions in the psychiatric profession, and these issues needed to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, adding: "This amendment is not perfect."
He stressed the three masters had decided to clear up certain misconceptions that had arisen during the campaign. Specifically, they wanted to address the issue of the safety of pregnant women, and reassure voters that women with incomplete miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies would still be properly, and immediately treated. "In an incomplete miscarriage the baby has already died, so the issue of termination of pregnancy does not arise," he said.
Responding to the joint statement, the Fine Gael spokesman on justice and security, Mr Alan Shatter, said: "The call for a Yes vote by the masters of Dublin's three maternity hospitals is totally incompatible with the view expressed by them that our law should permit such terminations [where the foetus is unviable\]. Instead of supporting the Government's proposal they should in fact be asking for a different amendment to be made to Article 40.3.3 and calling for a No vote."