Eighth Amendment creates ‘unacceptable risk’, NMH master says

Dr Rhona Mahony calls for repeal of provision in order to protect women and children

The Eighth Amendment creates unacceptable clinical risk to women and children in this country, the master of the National Maternity Hospital has said.

Speaking at a Together for Yes conference on Wednesday, Dr Rhona Mahony said "the existence of the Eighth Amendment in our Constitution is every day causing women serious risk and therefore I think it should be repealed".

Dr Mahony said she was speaking in her capacity as a consultant obstetrician and as a specialist in maternal-foetal medicine.

She said the current situation required a woman to be dying before she can qualify for a termination of pregnancy.


“She must have a substantial risk to life that can only be removed by a termination of a pregnancy,” Dr Mahony said.

“This leads to very complex decision-making in very sick women and these decisions are made in the shadow of a 14-year custodial sentence. There are very few other areas of medicine where such complex medical decisions are made within a criminal context.”

Dr Mahony referenced a High Court case in December 2014 involving a woman referred to as Miss P.

The woman, aged in her 20s, was at 15 weeks’ gestation when she was declared clinically dead on December 3rd at a Dublin hospital.

That arose from a brain trauma suffered at a hospital outside Dublin on November 29th, two days after she was admitted there complaining of severe headaches.

Due to concerns by doctors at the Dublin hospital over the legal implications of her pregnancy, arising from the State’s obligation to vindicate the right to life of the unborn guaranteed by the Amendment, she was kept on somatic life-support treatment.

“This was a direct consequence of the Eighth Amendment, because what you had here was the conflict between the actual clinical situation and the risk and this balance of rights,” Dr Mahony said.

“This case was horrific. This was a dead woman being kept somatically functioning in order to incubate the foetus, and this isn’t a long time ago and could happen again under the current arrangement.”

Dr Mahony also said there are "backstreet abortions" happening in Ireland, with woman accessing abortion pills online and without the necessary support.

‘Growing consensus’

Ailbhe Smyth, co-director of Together for Yes, said the group welcomed the proposed legislation providing for terminations without restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy, which was brought forward by Minister for Health Simon Harris on Tuesday.

“Voters now have clarity regarding the shape of legislation that will be proposed if the Eighth Amendment is removed” after the forthcoming referendum, she said.

Ms Smyth said there was a “growing consensus” amongst the Cabinet and throughout the country that the Eighth Amendment “has to go”.

Dr Mark Murphy, GP and spokesman for Together for Yes, said the Eighth Amendment "imposes unprofessional practice on doctors".

Dr Murphy said that when a woman comes to a GP with a crisis pregnancy,“GPs would like to provide continuous unfragmented care where we could have continuity and provide non-judgmental, compassionate care to that woman.

“We cannot practise evidence-based principles, we can’t refer that woman for services, I can’t prescribe the [abortion] pill, which I would like to do in that case.

“In these situations women are forced to travel abroad and we, because of the Eighth Amendment, are complicit in imposing ill-health on these women who require compassionate care in Ireland.”

Dr Susan Smith, GP and professor of primary care at RCSI, said that "it shames me as a doctor to think of my patients having to travel for something that I could provide if I wasn't potentially going to be acting unlawfully.

“We have introduced systems for medical interventions right across the board . . . for lots of other clinical situations and there’s no reason why with will and resources that we couldn’t do the same for women in a crisis pregnancy.”

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times