Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Abortion hearing told that doctors 'must be trusted'

Irish Medical Council president Prof Kieran Murphy, leaving the opening session of Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children at Leinster House in Dublin this morning. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish TimesMaster of the National Maternity Hospital Dr Rhona Mahony said legislation should be broad enough “to allow regulation to provide the detail and flexibility necessary to deal with current and future circumstance”.

Speaking on the opening day of hearings in the wake of the expert group report on the European Court of Human Rights judgment against Ireland, Dr Mahony said she supported the Government’s option of legislation and regulation for lawful access to termination of pregnancy in accordance with the X case.

She also called for the removal of the 1861 Offences against the Person Act and said “I need to know that I will not go to jail if I believe in good faith” that maternal death would occur without pregnancy termination. She said a mother could also be jailed under the Act.

She said “doctors must be trusted. What we are asking for is legal protection.”

Master of the Rotunda hospital Dr Sam Coulter Smyth said the legislation “needs to have within it flexibility to allow the medical profession to make appropriate decisions”. He said doctors sought a change in legislation to support doctors in performing the life saving operations they had to do.

He said that “in our hospital last year we had six situations where if termination had not occurred death would have occurred” and in response to questions from Senator John Crown about the number of terminations nationally, suggested it was in the region of 20 to 30.

Dr Coulter Smyth believed the incidence had risen in recent years because of the increase in maternal age, increase in complexity of illness and in the rise in obesity levels.

He said “we need to trust in our medical practitioners and in the judgment of those individuals”.

Dr Mary McCaffrey of Kerry General hospital said the right to conscientious objection in the case of pregnancy termination should be accepted.

Dr McCaffrey, representing the 12 small maternity units across the State, where one third of Irish babies are born, said: “I know that my peers will always act in the best interest of their patients in emergency situations. A person who has a conscientious objection must be allowed to follow their conscience.”

Earlier, Irish Medical Council president Prof Kieran Murphy told the committee that doctors should not allow their personal moral standards to influence their treatment of pregnant women.

Prof Murphy said those with a conscientious objection to a course of action must explain this to patients and make the names of other doctors available to them.

"The right of conscientious objection must be balanced against the right of the patient, particularly in the case of a medical emergency," he added.

The committee has begun three days of hearings on the Government decision to legalise abortion in limited circumstances at some point next year. 

More than 40 witnesses and 20 groups will give evidence, among them medical and legal experts, the churches, civil society bodies, pro-choice and anti-abortion groups and politicians.

The evidence will range from complex and technical factual material to emotive advocacy from groups representing both sides of the debate. As such, it will be the first substantial foray into a debate that will dominate and divide Irish political discourse throughout 2013; as it did in 2002, in 1992 and in 1982/3.

The hearings are part of three-step process to arrive at a legislative solution to end the uncertainty over what is legally permissible with abortion.

Responding to the judgement in the A, B and C v Ireland of the European Court of Human Rights, Prof Murphy said the council believed that doctors should have legal clarity when making clinical decisions, insofar as legislation underpinned by regulations, would provide that clarification to doctors.

Replying to committee members, Prof Murphy said that, to the best of his knowledge, the council had not received complaints regarding the handling of the termination of a pregnancy.

The Oireachtas committee, chaired by Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer, will draw up a report for Minister for Health James Reilly. He and his officials will then publish draft legislation. 

There will be further public consultation.

Once that ends, the Bill will be published and debated in the Dáil. Dr Reilly has predicted that the fresh legislation can be enacted before the summer recess. In reality, it may be the end of the year.

The hearings have been divided into four discrete sections. 

Today, members will hear from medical experts, particularly in the areas of obstetrics, and psychiatry. 

Tomorrow, they will hear from legal experts, particularly from those with knowledge of the Constitution and medico-legal areas.

On Thursday, the four main churches as well as the Islamic faith will make submissions. 

Most of the focus will obviously be on what the Catholic hierarchy has to say. 

Later that day groups advocating anti-abortion and pro-choice positions will appear.

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