Suicide-risk women in Ireland may be denied abortions through new rules

Pro-choice doctorssay Irish guidelines would leave women 'at mercy of a lottery'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 9:52pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 9:56pm


Pregnant women in Ireland could be blocked from having an abortion even if they are at risk of suicide after conceiving as a result of rape or incest, under new guidelines issued to Irish doctors.

Experts warned that the Guidance Document for Health Professionals, which has yet to be made public, will give power to anti-abortion doctors, obstetricians and psychiatrists to prevent vulnerable women from terminating their pregnancies.

Pro-choice clinicians, including one of Ireland's leading psychiatrists, said the rules would leave women "at the mercy of a local, moral and political lottery".

Veronica O'Keane, professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, said a woman could potentially have to see up to seven medical experts before getting a decision on her right to an abortion.

The UN human rights committee, which has been shown the document, has described the guidance on dealing with women contemplating suicide as "an excessive degree of scrutiny by medical professionals".

The guidelines were drawn up after the Irish government introduced legislation last year to allow for abortion in extremely limited circumstances. The law followed the death of Savita Halappanavar, 31, who was denied an emergency termination that could have saved her life.

Pro-choice campaigners fear that conservative attitudes among health professionals will put more women's lives at risk.

More than 100 Irish psychiatrists - nearly one in three in the country - signed a statement last year opposing any kind of abortion reform, including those cases of women at risk of suicide.

The 108-page guide does not include provisions for a national independent medical committee to make decisions on treating those with "suicidal intent", which was a key demand among campaigners for reform. They argue that an independent committee would be more objective than local medics and allow women more privacy.

In its introduction, the document states that "the purpose of this act is to restate the general prohibition on abortion in Ireland". Medical professionals are also advised on the first page that the act provides "a clear criminal prohibition on abortion".

On page 10, a diagram explaining the procedure for applying for a termination makes clear that the initial referral for women including those with "suicidal intent" begins with her own doctor.

If the doctor agrees, he or she will refer the woman to three doctors - an obstetrician and two psychiatrists - who will decide whether there is a real risk to the woman's life through suicide. If her request is rejected, she will go through an appeal system.

A spokesman for the Department of Health in Dublin said the guidelines had yet to be ratified by health minister Leo Vradkar.