Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Oireachtas begins three days of hearings on abortion issue

Doctors must not allow their personal moral standards to influence their treatment of pregnant women, Irish Medical Council president Prof Kieran Murphy has said.

Prof Murphy told the opening session of Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children hearing into abortion this morning that those with a conscientious objection to a course of action must explain this to patents 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.

Prof Murphy said legislation and/or regulations should set out criteria for independent monitoring of the proposed structures.

Responding to the judgement in the A, B and C v Ireland of the European Court of Human Rights, 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.

He said it was a matter for the Oireachtas to pass the legislation on the issue, adding that the protection of the public was paramount. The guidelines published by the council were not a legal code but must be consistent with the law, he said.

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.

Dr John Crown, a committee member from Seanad Éireann, doesn’t agree with the inclusion of churches or lobby groups. He said yesterday that the committee was being asked to assess the information in preparation for legislation and that information should be medical and technical. He said views for and against abortion should be for another  forum.

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