Binchy warns on liberal abortion law


Prof William Binchy, of Trinity College Dublin, has warned against a liberal abortion regime at the Oireachtas health committee hearings.

"If the Oireachtas proceeds on the basis that it is permissible intentionally to terminate the lives of unborn human beings, what principled barrier is there to extending the circumstances in which these lives may be terminated?" he said.

"Most other countries, which have changed their laws on abortion, have found that further extensions follow as the full implications of the change in underlying values becomes apparent."

Today is the second day of Oireachtas hearings on the Government decision to legalise abortion in limited circumstances. The committee is to draw up a report for Minister for Health James Reilly before he and his officials publish draft legislation.

Former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness said it did not seem to her that the kind of legislation being proposed, following the X case, could open any floodgates. "Protocols and standards are all very fine...but when it comes in front of the courts, protocols and standards are not enough if the law is needed."

Ms McGuinness said that while everybody felt for the circumstances of the pregnant woman, they also needed to do something about it. She urged members of the committee not to be affected "by a kind of bullying approach from either side of the question". They should think about where the middle ground was, she said.

Earlier, the committee heard that no time limits should be placed on the availability of the termination of a pregnancy where the woman’s life was at risk.

“As a matter of practice, once the pregnancy progresses beyond the stage of viability, every effort should be made to safely deliver the child, unless to do so would place the woman’s life at risk,” Jennifer Schweppe, lecturer in law at the University of Limerick, told the committee’s hearing on abortion this morning.

Ms Schweppe said that where the underlying medical condition was suicidal ideation, at least one of the medical practitioners should have a specialty in mental health.  Legislation, she added, should also provide for a process of referral to an independent medical professional, or independent professionals nominated by the woman or her treating physician, where she disagreed with the initial conclusion.

Ciara Staunton of the School of Law, NUI Galway, said an issue left for the Government to resolve was whether there should be cut-off point for obtaining an abortion. “While this cut-off date is common internationally, I recommend that one should not be included in our legislation,” she added. “The test, as explained by the Supreme Court, is that a woman is entitled to a lawful abortion if there is a real and substantial risk to her life which can only be averted by a termination of the pregnancy.”

Ms Staunton said that if, at 35 weeks for example, a woman’s life was in danger and her doctors recommended a termination of pregnancy, they should do so if she consented. Her doctors should make every effort to ensure the unborn’s life could be saved.

Barrister and former doctor Dr Simon Mills said he could see that in terms of drafting legislation which would attract general support, and not be unconstitutional, there might be certain types of termination for which time limits might be appropriate. “I do not want to put it any further than that. It is something that is almost germinating in my head as I have been sitting here.”

Dr Mills presented the committee with a draft Bill, the Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2012. He said it dealt with a termination in cases of risk to life, with specific safeguards to take account of concerns over the threats of suicide.  It also covered terminations in cases of inevitable miscarriage of a non-viable pregnancy and in cases of lethal foetal abnormality.

The Bar Council of Ireland declined to appear before the committee today because it could not find consensus on the issue among its 2,300 members.

Figures for terminations

New figures for the number of terminations carried out in Irish maternity hospitals emerged at yesterday’s hearings.

About six pregnancies a year are terminated to save the life of the mother at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, while three such cases occur annually at the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, experts told the health committee yesterday. In 2011 the Rotunda delivered 9,319 babies, while 9,459 infants were born in Holles Street.

Master of the Rotunda Dr Sam Coulter Smith estimated the annual incidence of cases where interruption of pregnancy was required across the State could be between 20 and 30.

Master of the National Maternity Hospital Dr Rhona Mahony, who estimated a lower figure, called for legislation to protect medical professionals doing their jobs and appealed for the repeal of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act which criminalises abortion.

“That law stands today and I need to know that I will not go to jail if in good faith I believe it is the right thing to save a woman’s life to terminate a pregnancy. I want to know that I will not go to jail and I want to know, by the way, that she will not go to jail,” she said. Dr Mahony said she was offended “by some of the pejorative and judgmental views that women will manipulate doctors in order to obtain termination of pregnancy”.

Pope's comments

Meanwhile, Taoiseach Enda Kenny responded to Pope Benedict XVI’s apparent intervention in the Republic’s abortion debate when the pontiff expressed “dismay” at the proposed introduction of abortion legislation in various countries.

Mr Kenny said the pope was entitled to make his comments as head of the Roman Catholic Church. “What we are about here is not introducing legislation for abortion . . . but setting a framework and process that legal certainty would apply to medical personnel in a situation where the life of a mother is threatened [and] regulations that restrict abortion on demand,” Mr Kenny said.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said he respectfully disagreed with the pope’s view.

“I think women in Ireland are entitled to more than understanding and mercy, as he put it. I think they are entitled to have legal clarity about their situation where their life is at risk,” Mr Gilmore said. However, Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton said it was “not clear that the pope was suggesting for any second that women are not entitled to legal clarity”.

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