Leading psychiatrist rubbishes 'idiotic' abortion assessment plans

Savita Halappanavar: Legislation follows her death in a Galway hospital last year (Picture: The Irish Times)

A psychiatric specialist has warned the Government that proposals to force potentially suicidal pregnant women to be assessed by six doctors are idiotic and a sick joke.

Dr Anthony McCarthy, one of only three perinatal psychiatrists in the country, gave the damning verdict in response to suggestions that new laws will demand women face a panel of medics when suffering serious mental health problems.

The proposal is understood to have been included in draft laws on abortion and widely seen as an effort to ensure Fine Gael backbench support for the removal of the limited ban on terminations.

Dr McCarthy, from the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, Dublin, attacked both the idea of putting vulnerable women under more pressure and the practicalities of convening a panel of six experts.

“If a woman is seriously distressed and depressed in pregnancy and potentially suicidal, or having suicidal ideas, the idea that you would bring her through a forum, through this, almost an inquisition where she would have to tell her story in a front of six people is frankly abusive, it’s truly idiotic,” he said.

Dr McCarthy said the focus in recent years on trying to destigmatise suicide and mental health would have been wasted.

“This idea would do everything to say don’t talk,” he said.

Dr McCarthy, president of the Irish College of Psychiatry, who treats about 590 patients at Holles Street out of 9,500 births every year, gave the example of a 16-year-old girl who was being cyber-bullied. The specialist said every message from politics and society should be to get the teenager to talk and make sure she is heard and understood.

Dr McCarthy said the idea then that a pregnant woman with suicidal thoughts would need to be assessed by six doctors, including four psychiatrists, could give the impression that she may be a liar and manipulative.

“When I heard it first yesterday I though that this is almost like a sick joke, to be truthful,” he told RTÉ Radio.

The Government is planning to introduce new laws allowing for medical abortion by July.

The coalition was forced to act after the death of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital last year after being denied a termination during a miscarriage and also following a

European court ruling which found that a woman in remission from cancer should not have been forced to travel overseas for an abortion.

Meanwhile, officials from trade unions Siptu and Unite and the Women’s Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions presented a statement to Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s office calling for legislation on abortion.

“Faced with such obstacles, a distressed woman or girl would probably not proceed past the first interview – making abortion unavailable in practice to women or girls who are suicidal due to unwanted pregnancy and increasing the risk to their lives,” they said in a statement.

The unions said the 1992 X case demands legislation where the opinion of no more than two medical practitioners is enough to approve an abortion.

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