Opening the floodgates?

Much has been made that the current legislation as proposed by Fine Gael / Labour government will be very limited. Let's look at the evidence of other countries


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At the Health Committee Abortion hearings, Ciara Staunton from NUI Galway said that medical professionals have to be trusted for their clinical judgement that the threat of suicide is connected to the pregnancy. "There's this fear that there would be floodgates," she said.

"That fear is completely unfounded and it suggests that there would be some sort of collusion between the pregnant woman and the doctor. "That is not the case.

"We trust our doctors in every other clinical judgement they make, and we must continue to trust our doctors when it comes to the issue of abortion.

"It is very clear that it's only if the risk of suicide is linked to the preganancy, that case, there is a lawful abortion."

This is completely false. The recognition that the floodgates will open comes from the evidence, not fear.

The evidence is found in the American experience with mental health exceptions to abortion that occurred before Roe v Wade. In California's Therapeutic Abortion Act of 1967 they tried to create a "balance" between the health of the mother and the state's interest in limiting abortion. To get an abortion, the mental illness of the mother had to reach the same medical standard for involuntarily committing a person to a mental health institution: "mental illness to the extent that the woman is dangerous to herself or to the person or property of others or is in need of supervision or restraint."

The woman needed a committee of two licensed doctors (or 3 if after the 13th week of pregnancy) to be in unanimous agreement to allow an abortion.

So, what happened? In 1970, just one year, there were 63,872 abortions approved and 61,572 performed! Virtually all of them, 98.2%, were approved and performed under the mental health exception. The Supreme Court, reflecting on the flood of abortions coming from the mental heath exception said, "Serious doubt must exist that such a considerable number of pregnant women could have been committed to a mental institution. Either pregnancy carries risks to mental health beyond those ever imagined, or legal writers and members of the therapeutic abortion committees, two groups we must assume to be of at least common intelligence, have been forced to guess at the meaning of this provision and have reached radically different interpretations."

So, are California doctors more prone to collusion than Irish doctors? Are they less trust worthy? That is not the issue. The issue is that abortion is never a treatment for mental health or suicide ideation (we know that it results in elevated levels of suicide ideation) and such legislative creations are based on politics and not on sound medicine. There is simply inherent ambiguity in the standard being applied and doctors should never be in a position of deciding whether an Irish baby is killed. It is by definition a corruption of their professional ethos to care for and heal life.

Paul Linton, U.S. Constitutional Scholar and author on abortion law in America discusses the the debate on abortion in Ireland


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It was reported in the Irish Independent on 21st December 2012, that LORD David Steel, the architect of Britain's liberal abortion laws, has said the Irish Government would be making a mistake if it goes ahead with plans to legislate for termination on the grounds of a threat of suicide.

The 1967 act permitted abortion up to the 28th week of pregnancy and Lord Steel has admitted that an Irish law which decides who can avail of a termination by ticking boxes would be "very difficult to implement".

"I think it would be a mistake to try and legislate for abortion in categories such as suicide or rape," he said. "We began with a bill with five categories, and sensibly, in consultation with the medical profession, they were reduced to two: the mental and physical health of the mother taking into account her whole family circumstances, and if there was a substantial risk of severe handicap.

He added: "It would seem the mistake being made in Ireland is to try to define the circumstances in which each abortion may be carried out and that is a hopeless road to travel down. I never envisaged there would so many abortions."


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A letter by ALISTAIR McFARLANE, an ex-gynaecologist who worked in both the UK and Ireland, the Irish Times on 11th January had a very interesting observation regarding legalising abortion for suicidal ideation.

As an ex-gynaecologist who has worked in both Ireland and Britain, I am naturally interested in the ongoing debate about legislation for abortion in Ireland. The big question seems to be whether legislating for abortion in Ireland will lead to “abortion on demand”. I refer to the reported interviews by the Seanad committee (Home News, January 9th). Dr Rhona Mahony, Master of the Rotunda, said that she was offended by the suggestion that women would attempt to manipulate their doctors on the basis of fabricated ideas of suicidal ideation or intention in order to obtain terminations. She was supported by Senator John Crown, who is also a doctor.

But there would be no question of “manipulation”; women wanting an abortion would know that all they would have to do was utter the phrase “suicidal thoughts” and an abortion would at once be granted in the private clinics set up to cope with the demand.

So these women, rather than lying to or manipulating their doctors, would just be going through a tedious, but required ritual.

If a psychiatrist had to certify that the suicidal ideation is genuine, then the clinics would simply employ one who is strongly pro-abortion and would automatically co-operate. The vast majority of psychiatrists who would not agree would be excluded from the decision-making process. That is what would happen in the real world.