Some politi­cians think it’s OK to try to thwart hard­won re­pro­duc­tive rights

This coun­try has spo­ken on abor­tion – yet a co­hort of our politi­cians think it’s OK to abuse their power to try to thwart th­ese hard-won re­pro­duc­tive rights

Irish Independent - - News -

FIVE-AND-A-HALF months ago, the peo­ple voted by two to one in favour of abor­tion re­form – a de­ci­sive ma­jor­ity which can­not be mis­in­ter­preted. This week, a small group of men and women on the Oireach­tas Health Com­mit­tee ap­peared to be try­ing to un­der­mine that re­sult.

De­spite the clar­ity of the peo­ple’s voice, those com­mit­tee mem­bers en­gaged in what could be in­ter­preted as an abuse of process or an abuse of po­si­tion. They tabled some out­landish amend­ments which look sus­pi­ciously like di­ver­sion­ary tac­tics to thwart and di­lute the pro­posed leg­is­la­tion.

Our politi­cians have an obli­ga­tion to scru­ti­nise new laws, but not to sab­o­tage them when leg­isla­tive change is the will of the peo­ple. Some of what was is­sued from Mat­tie McGrath, Peadar Tóibín and oth­ers sounded sus­pi­ciously like di­ver­sion­ary tac­tics.

Here’s an ex­am­ple: an amend­ment to in­sist on pain re­lief for a foe­tus un­der­go­ing ter­mi­na­tion. Doc­tors tell us a foe­tus feels no pain be­fore 26 weeks be­cause its ner­vous sys­tem is not yet func­tional. Con­se­quently, politi­cians ask­ing for pain re­lief are flag­ging up their view that a 10 or 12-week foe­tus is a com­plete hu­man be­ing – this is an ab­so­lutist po­si­tion, it is not yet at that stage of its de­vel­op­ment.

Cur­rently, when surgery is car­ried out in the womb on a foe­tus, it is done with­out analgesic. The foe­tus is given an anaes­thetic to stop it mov­ing around, which might com­pro­mise the pro­ce­dure, but noth­ing for pain re­lief be­cause medics re­gard it as un­nec­es­sary. Pro­ce­dures car­ried out in utero in­clude giv­ing a blood trans­fu­sion to the foe­tus in cases where a mother is anaemic.

An­other pro­posed amend­ment (among 180 in to­tal) which could be clas­si­fied as verg­ing on the macabre re­lates to burial ar­range­ments – the “dig­ni­fied dis­posal of foetal re­mains”. Re­mem­ber, we’re talk­ing about ter­mi­na­tions up to a max­i­mum of 12 weeks’ ges­ta­tion. It is not un­com­mon for a woman to lose a preg­nancy in the first trimester – typ­i­cally, she be­gins bleed­ing and a blood clot is ejected. Are we now ex­pected to have burial ser­vices for ev­ery late, heavy pe­riod which might pos­si­bly be a mis­car­riage?

Such pro­pos­als prompted Fine Gael TD Kate O’Con­nell to ref­er­ence her own mis­car­riage: “I find it of­fen­sive as a woman who has been in this sit­u­a­tion. I don’t want to in­form any­body what I have done with my foetal re­mains, I don’t want to in­form the min­is­ter, I don’t want it in leg­is­la­tion and I most cer­tainly don’t want peo­ple in this house pre­scrib­ing what I should do…”

Health Min­is­ter Si­mon Har­ris ac­cused some TDs of us­ing “shock tac­tics” and found the burial amend­ment “grossly of­fen­sive”. He said it could crim­i­nalise some women go­ing through early-term abor­tions as the pro­posal stip­u­lated it would be a crim­i­nal of­fence not to bury or cre­mate the re­mains. Hospi­tals have pro­ce­dures in place al­ready around still­births and mis­car­riages.

Our pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tives are en­ti­tled to ex­press gen­uine con­cerns about leg­is­la­tion un­der con­sid­er­a­tion. Health Com­mit­tee mem­bers had a duty to scru­ti­nise the Reg­u­la­tion of Ter­mi­na­tion of Preg­nancy Bill. But they had an obli­ga­tion, too, to bear in mind that more than 66pc of the pop­u­lace voted in favour of abor­tion re­form on May 25. Mea­sured scrutiny of leg­is­la­tion has been ab­sent all too of­ten this week.

It is nat­u­ral for peo­ple to feel pas­sion­ately about abor­tion rights and wrongs. But some of the tabled amend­ments had lit­tle to do with the pub­lic good.

Carol Nolan didn’t want State money

Com­mit­tee mem­bers tabled some out­landish amend­ments. Our politi­cians have an obli­ga­tion to scru­ti­nise new laws, but not to sab­o­tage them

spent on pro­vi­sion for abor­tion ser­vices, a de­cid­edly pe­cu­liar sug­ges­tion from a for­mer Sinn Féin TD con­sid­er­ing it would give rich peo­ple eas­ier ac­cess than those on low in­comes. Re­ject­ing it, Mr Har­ris rightly ques­tioned how it could be ap­pro­pri­ate to send a bill to women who were raped or suf­fered a fa­tal foetal ab­nor­mal­ity.

The leg­is­la­tion has now passed the com­mit­tee stage, all of those amend­ments turned down, and the chal­lenge now for Mr Har­ris is to push it through both houses be­fore the Christ­mas re­cess. He sees it as pos­si­ble – but whether it is prob­a­ble is an­other mat­ter en­tirely.

One hole be­low the wa­ter­line has emerged al­ready. Some com­mit­tee mem­bers wanted pro­vi­sion for the use of ul­tra­sound imag­ing 24 hours be­fore ter­mi­na­tion. Pre­sum­ably, they think see­ing the grainy out­line of what they’re car­ry­ing might change some women’s minds.

But there’s no deny­ing that Fine Gael promised scans, partly to nudge wa­ver­ers across the line dur­ing the pre-ref­er­en­dum de­bate. How­ever, ul­tra­sound fa­cil­i­ties sim­ply aren’t avail­able in GP clin­ics while hospi­tals – which do have them – are al­ready un­der pres­sure even be­fore adding to their work­load.

Scans hap­pen be­fore all ter­mi­na­tions in Bri­tain ir­re­spec­tive of ges­ta­tion. But they aren’t strictly es­sen­tial, es­pe­cially with early preg­nan­cies. One of the rea­sons they take place rou­tinely in the UK is be­cause al­most all ter­mi­na­tions are done sur­gi­cally there. In Ire­land, it is en­vis­aged that peo­ple will tend to have med­i­cal abor­tions, ie af­ter tak­ing pills, un­der a doc­tor’s su­per­vi­sion. Abor­tions up to nine weeks will be han­dled by GPs and from nine to 12 weeks in hospi­tals.

There’s an­other dif­fer­ence. Abor­tions in the UK have been out­sourced to spe­cial­ist clin­ics such as Marie Stopes. Th­ese clin­ics are well equipped and scan to en­sure the foe­tus is in utero (not an ec­topic preg­nancy); check that it’s not an un­di­ag­nosed mis­car­riage; and con­firm foe­tus ges­ta­tion. Some women can be un­sure of their dates, par­tic­u­larly if they have ir­reg­u­lar pe­ri­ods.

Clearly, in Ire­land a scan would be needed to re­as­sure GPs who can’t sim­ply take a woman’s word for how far along she is in a preg­nancy. Doc­tors need to know a ter­mi­na­tion is hap­pen­ing legally and that they aren’t en­gag­ing in poor clin­i­cal prac­tice.

But GPs tend not to have ul­tra­sound fa­cil­i­ties, although they have been promised a raft of new pri­mary care cen­tres. What’s likely to hap­pen is women pre­sent­ing for abor­tion will be re­ferred to hospi­tals for scan­ning. GPs will be ex­tremely cau­tious, es­pe­cially in the ini­tial phase af­ter abor­tion leg­is­la­tion is passed. But what if a woman is ap­proach­ing the 12-week dead­line and en­coun­ters a scan­ning back­log?

Po­ten­tially, this is a se­ri­ous prob­lem. Even if ad­di­tional equip­ment is bought, staff will need to be up­skilled or hired in or­der to use it. I can’t be­lieve the pub­lic health sys­tem is in a po­si­tion to cope with ad­di­tional de­mand. Has any­one con­sid­ered the im­pli­ca­tions? How about po­ten­tial so­lu­tions such as li­cens­ing pri­vate op­er­a­tors to do scans?

Rais­ing such ques­tions would have been a more pro­duc­tive use of the Health Com­mit­tee’s time.

I do hope women aren’t go­ing to be left out on a limb on this – it wouldn’t be the first time.

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