Oireachtas hearings on abortion legislation to commence

Wednesday 15 May 2013 16.16
Jerry Buttimer was widely praised for the manner in which he ran earlier hearings on the issue
Jerry Buttimer was widely praised for the manner in which he ran earlier hearings on the issue

At the end of last month, the Government finally published the draft Heads of Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013.

As heads of bills go, it was a lengthy and complex document, running to 33 pages.

RTÉ's Fergal Bowers previews Oireachtas hearings on abortion legislation

People are still absorbing the implications of the proposed new regulatory system.

But of course, the final legislation has yet to be published.

The next phase of the process begins this Friday with the start of public hearings by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children on the heads of the bill.

Submissions to the committee on the bill closed on 8 May.

Friday will be devoted to a policy overview of the proposed changes, followed by contributions by health regulatory and representative bodies and then we will hear from doctors working in obstetric care facilities in lager hospitals.

Over the period of the hearings, the committee will hear from a range of medical, legal and social experts, with a variety of views.

The hearings will be challenging for the committee chairman, Jerry Buttimer, but there was much praise for the manner in which he ran the public hearings on the implementation of the Government decision following the publication of the Expert Group Report on A, B, & C vs Ireland.

The chairman's aim is that these new hearings will be calm and dignified.

The issue has still to be fully played out politically and only at the time of the vote on the new legislation will we see which Government deputies will not support it.

All citizens have a view on the proposed new laws.

However, it is doctors, nurses and midwives that will have to operate whatever system is finally put into law.

The heads of bill allow for conscientious objection on an individual basis, although in a medical emergency a doctor would have ethical obligations.

The question has been raised about the role of 'Catholic hospitals' and such institutions opting out of providing for terminations of pregnancy.

The proposed legislation says no institution or organisation shall refuse to provide a lawful termination of pregnancy to a woman on grounds of conscientious objection.

It is worth noting that at its recent AGM in Killarney, the Irish Medical Organisation voted against any legislation on abortion.

In contrast, at its AGM last weekend, the Irish College of General Practitioners passed a motion calling on the Government to introduce clarity in the law, founded on evidence-based medical guidelines, where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother.

Another motion was also narrowly carried calling on the Government to include within the proposed legislation the provision that women who are pregnant with non-viable foetal anomalies have access to the choice of legal abortion in the Republic of Ireland.

Like the general population, medical professionals have deeply held views on how Ireland should proceed on the area of abortion.

The Oireachtas hearings are likely to hear proposed amendments including calls for a 'Sunset Clause.'

The proposal, first made in a letter to the Taoiseach by Cork North West FG TD Michael Creed, would allow for the legislation on abortion to be reviewed after a number of years.

The thinking is that if it had led to an "opening of the floodgates' then the law could be looked at again.

It is also expected that some will call for provision for legal representation for the unborn in the proposed new legislation and a further tightening of the provision for a termination of pregnancy where there is a threat of self destruction.

The heads of bill propose that a request for a termination of pregnancy can be granted in three instances where the mother's life is at risk.

The first is in the case of a medical emergency, where there is an immediate risk to the life of the mother, due to a physical condition.

The definition of immediate risk is not provided in the Bill. Because of the nature of medical emergencies, one doctor can certify the need for a termination of pregnancy.

These are the only instances where terminations can be performed in private obstetric units, due to the nature of such emergencies.

The next area is where there is a risk to the life of the woman due to physical illness. The scheme is silent on the clinical conditions but these are likely to be defined by the various medical bodies.

In these cases, two doctors must certify for a termination to be permitted and the woman's GP must also be consulted. The two doctors - an obstetrician and relevant specialist - have to unanimously agree for a termination to be permitted.

The last area, probably the most contentious, involves a risk of suicide - or what the Bill describes as a risk of 'Self-Destruction'.

Here, three doctors must certify - one obstetrician and two psychiatrists - and agree unanimously that a termination of pregnancy is necessary. If they do not, on appeal to three more doctors, the next three must unanimously agree for a termination to be permitted.

The HSE has to set up a panel of doctors to deal with appeals and these must be dealt with within seven days.

Each year, the Minister for Health will receive a report on the number of applications for a termination of pregnancy, the number of reviews, the outcome of those reviews and any other information specified by the minister.

The data from this annual report will be important to show how the new legal system is operating and if there are any surprising trends.

When the legislation comes into force, there is always the possibility of it being tested in the courts.

It is important to note that the committee meetings are a consultative process and do not form part of the passage of the Bill through the Oireachtas.

This is pre-legislative scrutiny and so no amendments can be made at this stage.

After its hearings, the committee is to report back to the Health Minister on Thursday 30 May and it can make recommendations.

The bill is then expected to be published around the middle of June.

At that point, it will follow the legislative process through the Houses of the Oireachtas.