By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
Ireland is at risk of having to pay costly compensation to thousands of women forced to travel abroad to receive an abortion unless the law is immediately changed to make the procedure legal and easily accessible, the Oireachtas Eighth Amendment committee heard today.
The US-based Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) made the claim after the State paid out €30,000 over an abortion case for only the second time in its history in response to a United Nations ruling on the matter.
Speaking at the latest Oireachtas Eighth Amendment committee meeting as two pro-life organisations cancelled planned meetings with the group and pro-life Independent TD Mattie McGrath accused committee members of "bullying", the CRR said Ireland remains at risk of further abortion pay-outs.
Yesterday evening, it emerged the Government has agreed to pay Wexford woman Siobhan Whelan €30,000 in compensation after she had to travel to Liverpool for an abortion in 2010 after being told her unborn child had a congenital brain malformation classified as a fatal foetal abnormality.
In a ruling earlier this year, the United Nation's human rights committee said Ms Whelan received no support in Ireland and that what happened to her amounted to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.
The Government subsequently agreed to pay Ms Whelan €30,000 in compensation, mirroring a similar pay out to Amanda Mellet earlier this year.
Asked by Independents4Change TD Clare Daly at today's Oireachtas Eighth Amendment Committee "where Ireland needs to get to" to protect the State from further cases as "presumably there are much more cases", CRR regional director for Europe Leah Hoctor said Ireland "must make abortion services practically accessible now".
Noting the fact the Whelan and Mellet cases focussed on "an analysis of the degrading treatment, travel and breach in continuum" of medical care due to travelling, Ms Hoctor said other cases are inevitable as "similar violations" of UN human rights rules have taken place.
While accepting she is not aware of any pending cases at this stage, Ms Hoctor said "it may happen Ireland will continue to come before the committee" unless changes are made and that any abortion law alteration must "not be simply making it legal, but legal and accessible in practice".
The comments came as two pro-life witnesses who were due to attend the eighth amendment committee cancelled their plans due to claims the cross-party group is biased against pro-life views.
As revealed in today's Irish Examiner, Dr Marty McCaffrey, professor of paediatrics at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, wrote to the committee to say he will not take part in what has become a "kangaroo court".
The view mirrored that of psychiatrist Prof Patricia Casey last month, and was repeated today by the Both Lives Matter group, which said it will also cancel plans to attend.
It is understood that during private session before today's committee meeting, committee chair and Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone repeated her call for pro-life witnesses and said she would be open to holding a teleconference call or calls with pro-life experts in Australia and other countries who were previously rejected because of travel cost concerns.
However, in public session she and other committee members were accused of "bullying" by Independent pro-life TD Mattie McGrath, who later said he and Independent pro-life senator Ronan Mullen were "the result of a pregnancy" before responding to laughter by shouting "this is why this committee is a charade".
The Pro-Life Campaign also held a media briefing at the gates of Leinster House during today's committee, with spokesperson Cora Sherlock also saying the committee is biased and saying there is little point in pro-life groups attending.
Both pro-life and pro-choice groups today released independent polls showing few Irish people fully understand Britain's abortion laws and that a small majority of Irish people are now in favour of abortion.
Within the committee, the CRR admitted it has never criticised an abortion provider after being asked by Fine Gael TD Peter Fitzpatrick about British reports an abortion provider paid its staff bonuses for the number of women they saw.
At a later meeting, consultant prenatal psychiatrist at Holles Street, Dr Anthony McCarthy, said "we cannot wish abortion away", before telling Fine Gael TD Kate O'Connell both abortion and full term pregnancy can cause mental health issues.