Top psychiatrists clash over impact of legislation

Two of the country’s top psychiatrists have clashed over the potential impact of legislation allowing abortion on the grounds of suicidal risk.

Dr Anthony McCarthy, president of the College of Psychiatry of Ireland and consultant perinatal psychiatrist at the National Maternity Hospital, said he could not see “floodgates” opening up in the event of such legislation being passed.

However, Prof Patricia Casey, of the department of adult psychiatry at UCD and the Mater Hospital, believed abortion would become widespread “within a short space of time” in such circumstances.

Addressing the Oireachtas Health Committee, Dr McCarthy said he did not expect to see a huge number of women seeking abortions if the legislation was passed as he believed many pregnant women with suicidal thoughts would continue to travel to Britain for a termination.

Dr McCarthy admitted the issue of abortion was as highly divisive among members of the college as it was in general society. He described much of the discussion on the subject of the risk of suicide in pregnant women as “simplistic, sometimes harsh and judgmental and frequently misinformed”.

He also informed the committee it was a major cause of concern that there were only three perinatal psychiatrists in the Republic, all based in Dublin. It meant there were women who, at a time of increased risk to their mental health, were not being screened or monitored.

Prof Patricia Casey told TDs and senators there was no evidence that abortion reduced the risk of suicide in pregnant women. However, she claimed there was some evidence that it might have a negative effect.

Prof Casey, who has worked closely with anti-abortion campaigners, said Irish medical experts had a poor record in predicting suicide risk.

She also referred to her own experience of pregnant women who had taken an overdose, not due to suicidal intentions, but because they were being coerced into having an abortion by their partners and families.

Prof Casey strongly advised that suicide risk should not be included as a ground for allowing abortion in any promised legislation.

She expressed concern that abortion would become widespread once allowed on narrow grounds, as there was no reason to believe Ireland would be different to any other country where it had been legalised.

However, Senator John Crown accused her of straying outside her area of competency by making such remarks.

Prof Casey admitted there was no information on how many of the 130,000 Irish women who had abortions in Britain since 1983 were suicidal.

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