Discourse removed from real world

DEVIOUS women and manipulative psychiatrists were recurring themes at the Oireachtas Health Committee hearings yesterday.

Time and again politicians who are opposed to legislating for abortion rose to their feet and addressed questions weighted with huge scepticism about the bona fides of pregnant women and head doctors.

It was as if these categories of citizens were conspiring, perhaps with others, inside a Trojan Horse, to inveigle the notion of abortion into the national psyche, in order to open up the mythical floodgates through which hordes of women would charge, demanding abortion for the masses.

Yesterday was all about suicide. A whole raft of politicians expanded and expounded on all they know about suicide during pregnancy, an extremely rare occurrence. If only the same intensity of application could be given over to suicide as it exists in the real world of Ireland today. But then, sometimes at these hearings, the real world is completely removed from the concerns and fears being expressed.

Thirteen psychiatrists filed into the Seanad chamber over the course of the day to provide the benefit of their experience to the legislators. As with the obstetricians last Friday, the psychiatrists were asked a number of pertinent questions relating to the forthcoming bill.

Some politicians made practical enquiries, around the timeframe for appealing a decision on whether a suicidal woman is entitled to an abortion, and the lack of provision in the legislation for minors, and particularly those in care.

However, the concerns of the dozen or so legislators who are identified as opposing the law as it has been drafted, dominated proceedings.

“On what basis can we be assured that the legislation won’t be abused,” asked Fine Gael’s Terence Flanagan at one stage. Could we end up with a greater demand for abortions for “social reasons”, Senator Ronan Mullin inquired, even though as a lawyer he must be aware that a referendum would be required for any such regime.

Mattie McGrath wondered if a woman who refused all other interventions would just be allowed to have an abortion, evoking images of devious women looking to undermine the law and subject themselves to an examination of their mental health, rather than just flying across the Irish Sea.

Fidelma Healy Eames wondered if the legislation might normalise suicide, making the threat of suicide an option for some people to get something. She gave a monetary example of her thesis, suggesting that “if somebody could get 50 per cent off their mortgage if (they claimed to be) suicidal” then a lot of people would shout that they intended to kill themselves. It was an interesting theory in the abstract, but quite bonkers in the context of crisis pregnancies.

Then there was Peter Matthews, who instead of addressing a question to the panel of psychiatrists, made a speech full of motherhood and apple pie. He is for a “good society, an ethical society, one that respects life.” He is against “rushing ” into legislation, although it was pointed out to him that the X case is over 20 years old.

The naysayers are not representative of the legislature as a whole. All opinion polls suggest they are certainly not representative of the population at large, but these hearings have given them a platform to repeat once more their personal views on the issue.

None of which is to say there was unanimity among the head doctors. Anthony McCarthy, the president of the College of Psychiatrists and one of only three perinatal psychiatrists here, sounded broadly in favour.

“Suicide in pregnancy is real risk, It does happen,” he says. However, he disputed the mantra repeated ad nasium by the anti-abortion lobby that abortion is not a treatment for suicide.

“I believe there will never be statistical evidence to prove this point one way or the other,” he said. “Because trying to prove anything statistically for such a rare event is extremely difficult if not impossible.”

His colleague John Sheehan is not necessarily a ‘floodgates’ man, but he has major concerns about how the legislation might prompt some women to stay at home rather than cross the Irish Sea.

So, maybe a large number of women who go abroad are suicidal, and may opt to stay at home in future. What does that say about attitudes to women in crisis pregnancies? Out of sight, out of mind?

Overall, two strands of opinion appear to be hardening on the suicide issue. The majority of legislators, and apparently medics, appear to agree that while suicide in pregnancy is extremely rare, it must be taken into account in legislating. Nobody can say with certainty that the issue wouldn’t arise, and therefore put a woman’s life at risk and perhaps necessitate a termination.

A minority of both medics and legislators are of the opinion that a suicide grounds should be discounted because there is no evidence that abortion is a “treatment”, and it could open up the spectre of large numbers claiming to be suicidal to avail of a legal abortion. This is the floodgates argument, the law of unintended consequences, the fear that hundreds, if not thousands, of Irish women will no longer clear off quietly to Britain, but demand that they be treated here.

The psychiatrist McCarthy simply wasn’t buying that theory. “The vast majority of people will continue to do what they do now,” he said.

Yet, the naysayers can’t accept that. For them, the proposed legislation is the Trojan Horse, which will open the floodgates. In this vein, Fine Gael’s Terence Flanagan referenced abortion laws introduced on limited grounds in California in 1967, which led to widespread availability within a few years. Somebody might have told him that California in the 1960s is as removed from Ireland in the 2010s, as some of the comments in the chamber are from the real world.

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