Protecting Medical Ethics

Intro

One of the safeguards that has ensured abortions have not been carried out in this state after X, has been the Medical Council's ethical guidelines on the substantive issue of abortion. However, in early June 2001, two motions put before the meeting took many members by surprise.

These two motions ran as follows:

"That the Medical Council recognises that termination of pregnancy can occur when there is a real and substantive risk to the life of the mother" and "that the Medical Council recognises that termination of a pregnancy can occur when the foetus is non-viable."

12 members supported the motions while seven voted against. Project Doctors was a new campaign to lobby doctors, especially those on the Medical Council, to reject these motions.

Medical Council Meeting

During May and June of 2001 an orchestrated manoeuvre by well-known abortion campaigners, including Professor Walter Prendiville, sought to overturn the pro-life ethical guidelines of the Medical Council.

Two motions were put before the Medical Council at that time, which proposed that the Council's ethical guidelines on abortion be changed to approve of abortion in a wide range of circumstances, including abortion of handicapped children. The 1998 Ethical guidelines had stated that the deliberate and intentional destruction of the unborn child is professional misconduct. The motions were carried but a controversy arose when seven members of the Medical Council walked out in protest and the Council received advice from two senior counsel that the decisions which were made did not follow proper procedure. The Irish Times confirmed that the Council was inundated with correspondence from doctors who were critical of the fact that they had not been consulted before this change was made as is the norm.

Campaign

The Medical Council decided to meet again on 12th September 2001 to discuss the motions. In the intervening months the Mother & Child Campaign took action against this ambush on Irish medical practice. In a widely circulated leaflet we pointed out that this crisis had been brought about by a few doctors with their own agenda, who were trying to persuade the Medical Council to drastically change medical practice in Ireland. We explained that these few doctors, led by Walter Prendiville and Tom O'Dowd, were totally unrepresentative of the Irish medical profession whose pro-life ethos had made Ireland the safest place in the world for a mother to have a baby.

The leaflet advised people that Irish doctors needed to hear their support, so that they would be encouraged to oppose the motions in September (2001). We listed the members of the Medical Council on the leaflet and asked readers to contact them to explain their opposition to the motions and support for the pro-life cause. We also suggested to readers that they contact their GP's and ask them to make their opinions known to the Medical Council.

We then took the initiative of sending every GP in the country a letter signed by eight pro-life doctors which urged them to add their voices to the others being heard by the Medical Council. Some of those doctors copied the letters they subsequently sent to our office, and the strength of their desire to protect both mother and child from the horror of abortion was heartening.

Distribution of the leaflets was concentrated especially around the areas where Medical Council members practiced with notable effects. At least two members of the council told YD members that they were astounded by the reaction of people who had come to their surgeries to complain vigorously about any attempt by doctors to facilitate the legalisation of abortion.

On 8th September 2001, the Irish Times published an open letter to the Medical Council from seven of it's members. They wrote; "It has been a matter of dismay to us that, in spite of our exhortations to the contrary, council has persistently not agreed to consultation with the full medical profession, all of its professional bodies, and the public about ethical issues relating to the pregnant mother. It is a matter of further concern that there is a failure to inform the public, on an ongoing basis, about the Medical Council's deliberations on this matter.

Two motions were proposed for the 12th September 2001 meeting. One sought to take back from the Ethics Committee its delegated authority to discuss abortion to allow the council to revise the ethical guidelines, while the other proposed that the position stated in the original motions be incorporated into the guidelines. Two counter-motions were also tabled. One asked for "widespread and open consultation on the issue with both the public and the profession" and the other proposed that the submission of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to the All-party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution be the basis for the ethical guidelines.

At the meeting, both of the motions proposed by abortion campaigners were defeated. The Medical Council then voted, by 14 votes to eight, to adopt a new guideline on abortion, which said the termination of a pregnancy was permissible where there was "a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother". However, the council also stated that it subscribed to the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists' position, which outlined the medical circumstances in which intervention in a pregnancy might be necessary to save the mother's life. The submission did not include the threat of suicide.

While pro-lifers will welcome the defeat of the original motions it is to be regretted that the wording of the new guideline replaces what was a much clearer prohibition on abortion.

Dr Hugh Bredin, one of seven doctors who opposed the earlier motions, told The Irish Times he voted against the amended motion because "real and substantial" could be interpreted as a licence for further expansion of the grounds for abortion."What are the limits of `real' and `substantial'?" he asked. There were 14 votes for and eight against the motion. However, Dr Bredin said he was happy the addendum referring to the position of the IOG had been added. It is certain that the guidelines of the Medical Council will continue to play an important role in the protection of mothers and babies in this country.