We're Not Gatekeepers; Politicians Hear from Psychiatrists on Abortion
Byline: Niamh Lyons Political Correspondent
THE State's three perinatal psychiatrists, who will be key in deciding whether a pregnant woman's life is at risk from suicide, gave evidence at day two of the Oireachtas hearing yesterday. The Protection of the Life during Pregnancy Bill hearings heard from consultant psychiatrists Dr Anthony McCarthy, of Holles Street, Dr John Sheehan, from the Rotunda, and Dr Joanne Fenton, from the Coombe, at the meeting in the Seanad.
Yesterday's hearing was mainly focused on Head 4 of the Bill which is concerned with the risk of loss of life from self-destruction.
Dr McCarthy said it cannot be ignored that women are travelling abroad for abortions but that their mental state can never be gauged, while Dr Sheehan raised concerns about the role that the new Bill will confer on psychiatrists. Dr Sheehan also fears that women who travel to the UK for terminations may 'flout' the law. He said: 'The extent of mental health problems and suicidal ideation among this population is unknown and hence, the utilisation of the proposed legislation on this population is unknown.
'This is a role Irish psychiatrusts have not been involved in to date.
The role could be construed as making psychiatrists the gatekeepers to abortion. Psychiatric practice relates to assessment and treatment of patients, not assessment and adjudication.
Psychiatrists are not judges.' Dr McCarthy said he feared vulnerable women may turn to buying dangerous abortion pills online and self-harm in the absence of laws defining when an abortion can take place here. He said there was a 'terrible Irish social history' of the treatment of distressed women in pregnancy.
He then told how he has treated elderly Irish women who had previously harmed themselves with knitting needles after they learned they were pregnant - before abortion became legal in Britain in 1967.
Dr McCarthy, who is president of the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland, said: 'I think it is a sign of our national ability sometimes just to ignore difficult questions and say 'let them go to England' or wherever they go now to have their terminations or, increasingly, let them take their medication that they buy over the internet and take it in their hotel rooms here, or in their homes, and abort their babies here, as women over centuries have done.
'I have seen women, now in their 80s, who have talked about sticking knitting needles in themselves before abortion was available in England.
'I have seen people who have stabbed themselves in the stomach and who have taken multiple overdoses in pregnancy who were not mentally ill - they were profoundly distressed and at serious risk to their own life and the life of the baby.
'We must dismiss the notion that somehow we can neatly discriminate between mental illness and distress because they interact.' The committee also heard self-harm is the single best predictor of subsequent suicide.
It was told that one in 100 people die by suicide within a year of a self-harm episode.
The country's third perinatal psychiatrist, Dr Joanne Fenton, also spoke to the committee. The three leading medics will work as part of a team including an obstetrician / gynaecologist and psychiatrist to decide whether a pregnant woman's life is at risk of suicide without a termination.
Elsewhere, an expert in suicide said he is concerned the proposed Bill could see an increase in young men taking their own lives.
Professor Kevin Malone, who published a major study on suicide yesterday, said he believed the measures could have unintended consequences. …