Claim of suicide risk in X case not challenged

One of the most startling aspects of the Oireachtas committee hearings on abortion has scarcely been mentioned

One of the most startling aspects of the Oireachtas committee hearings on abortion has scarcely been mentioned. People from all sides of the debate have expressed strong misgivings that the right to abortion was granted to the girl in the X case on the grounds that she was suicidal.

To give just a sample. Dr Peter McKenna, Master of the Rotunda, was involved in the in-patient care of the girl in X and states categorically that she was not depressed. He said: "I felt that the evidence presented from the suicide point of view was not challenged, for whatever reason.

"In other words, it was not subjected to scrutiny by second or indeed third opinion." His answer at the time as to whether the girl was depressed was: "No, she is upset, she is tearful, but so would I be if I was 14 . . ."

Prof Anthony Clare commented: "I think the psychologist at the time was exposed to very understandable scientific criticism, but we all knew what was going on . . . a compassionate response to an appalling situation . . . It wasn't her suicidal statement, it was really the way she became pregnant."


Dr John Sheehan, a consultant in the Rotunda, is one of only three psychiatrists in Ireland specialising in perinatal (i.e. relating to motherhood) psychiatry. His compelling evidence was not reported in this newspaper, nor, so far as I can ascertain, anywhere else in the media. This is quite extraordinary since he showed it was impossible to predict whether somebody would commit suicide or not. He cited research which showed that "the best predictors are wrong 97 times out of 100".

He went on to say: "Clearly there wasn't a real and substantial risk, and there wasn't a probability that the 14-year-old girl would have gone on to commit suicide, and that's borne out by both international figures and the Finnish study and the British study."

Why was evidence like this not worth even a paragraph in a paper? Particularly since Prof Clare's opinion that abortion should be available in certain circumstances received extensive coverage? Likewise, Mr Fred Lowe, who gave the psychological evidence in X (and who, incidentally, declined to answer questions on X), was reported almost verbatim in his call for abortion in the case of rape.

The Supreme Court judgment in X has been shown to be fatally flawed. Even those who favour abortion in certain circumstances, such as Dr McKenna and Prof Clare, agree it is defective.

A truly "appalling vista" opens if the X judgment, although dressed up in the guise of a "real and substantial risk to the life of the mother", actually granted the girl the right to an abortion because she was raped. Should such a flawed judgment be allowed to stand? And should the girl in X have been granted a right to abortion on the grounds of rape?

Vincent Browne declared during the week that he had changed his mind about abortion and that he now believed the State should not intervene to force somebody to continue a pregnancy in the case of rape. He obviously has an instinctive abhorrence for abortion and has not lightly changed his mind.

He was greatly influenced by a version of "Thomson's violinist". An essay by Judith Jarvis Thomson compares involuntary pregnancy with being kidnapped and drugged by music lovers, and finding that a famous violinist has been plugged into your kidneys. If you unplug him, he will die.

She declares that no one would suggest that you could be faulted for unplugging yourself. Likewise, she believes a woman who is involuntarily pregnant has the right to "unplug" the foetus although she concedes "for the sake of argument" that a foetus has the status of personhood from conception.

Unlike Vincent Browne, whom I would acknowledge as being thoughtful and nuanced on this issue, I find this analogy utterly unconvincing. Try reversing the argument. Suppose you wake to find a stranger has been plugged into you without his consent, and if he unplugs you, you will die. His declaration of his right to do so begins to look somewhat different.

A feminist philosopher, Jean Bethke Elshtain, has written that aside from mortality, the other major experience we all share is natality. We have all been dependent on a woman to nurture us in her womb. To compare aborting a child to unplugging an invasive stranger completely fails to acknow ledge the uniqueness and intimacy of this relationship.

Thomson's analogy is based on an individualised model of rights which is simply inadequate to encompass the relationship of a child in the womb to her mother, where one human being lives inside another.

It is not easy to reconcile the feminist emphasis on relationship and interdependency with the feminist defence of abortion on the grounds of individual rights. If reproduction is a woman's individual right, it dissolves not only the claims of a child on a mother, but dismisses men and denies them any responsibility for the next generation. All while demanding that men take more responsibility for children when women choose to give it to them.

Of course, all this talk of analogy and unplugging is entirely useless to the woman in crisis, who does not have the luxury of philosophising. Rape is one of the most devastating experiences anybody can have. Thankfully, pregnancy after rape is extremely rare.

A KEY question is rarely asked in relation to rape. What happens after an abortion? A 1996 Finnish study examined risk factors for suicide in all women, not just rape victims. The risk factor was found to be three times greater after abortion than in the general population, and seven times greater than after a completed pregnancy.

These are frightening statistics. By trying to help a woman to take away the pain of rape by aborting her baby, we could be exposing her to a far higher risk of suicide.

Why do we assume that abortion is the best solution? Remember the woman in the Kilkenny incest case, who declared her child to be "the light of her life"?

Even in the case of rape, it is extremely patriarchal to define a child as a "rapist's child". It is to transfer legitimate anger about an appalling crime from the rapist to a tiny innocent human being. Is the violence of rape helped by the violence of ending a life?

Women who had abortions for various reasons were interviewed in the Women and Crisis Pregnancy Study. They acknowledged that abortion was killing, but felt it was the best available option for their child. What does it say about us in the 21st century that women sincerely feel that killing their child (and their parents' grandchild) is the least bad solution to a crisis pregnancy?

In time to come I believe abortion will be seen as being as barbaric as female genital mutilation. Instead of expending our energies on legalising abortion, we should be trying to build a society where rape seldom happens and where every possible support is given in those rare cases where pregnancy follows a rape.