Health authorities in the dark about Harney abortion statement

Officials at the HSE and the department of health are unable to say what specific regulations minister Mary Harney was referring to when she spoke about the grounds on which an abortion could legally take place in Ireland during an RTÉ interview yesterday.

Speaking on News at One, the health minister said that an abortion could be made available to a woman who had cervical cancer, an ectopic pregnancy, or “very high blood pressure” — presumably a reference to pre-eclampsia.

The minister was responding to a judgement in the European court of Human Rights which criticised the government’s failure to enact legislation to give effect to the eighth amendment to the constitution and the subsequent “X” court case.

The case allowed that a woman had a right to an abortion in Ireland where there was “a real and substantial risk” to her life, including a risk of suicide.

The pregnant girl, identified only as Miss X, was a 13-year-old rape victim. She subsequently miscarried while on her way to England or an abortion following the Supreme Court decision.

Mary Harney did not list suicide risk as a factor along with the three others above. Two subsequent referendums to remove suicide risk as a reason for an abortion were defeated in 1992 and 2002.

Newswhip contacted the Health Service Executive to ask if the minster has signed a regulation, or the department had issued a guideline on the issue, but a spokesperson was unaware of any regulation and referred us to the department of health.

The health department in turn referred us to the Medical Council, which “has a statutory function to produce guidelines setting the standards required of registered medical practitioners.”

A spokesperson for the Council confirmed that guidelines issued in 2009 dealt with the issue, and provided a copy to Newswhip. However, the guidelines do not refer specifically to the three conditions cited by Mary Harney. It is not clear what source the interpretation of the guidelines offered to RTÉ by the minister came from.

A spokesperson for the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynacologists said they had sought clearer guidelines from the department.

Medical Council Guidelines:

In Ireland, the Medical Council has a statutory function to produce guidelines setting the standards required of registered medical practitioners. The Council’s 2009 guidelines specify the circumstances in which a life-saving termination may be carried out.

These guidelines (The Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics for Registered Medical Practitioners 7th Edition 2009) provide:

21.1 Abortion is illegal in Ireland except where there is a real and substantial risk to the life (as distinct from the health) of the mother. Under current legal precedent, this exception includes where there is a clear and substantial risk to the life of the mother arising from a threat of suicide. You should undertake a full assess­ment of any such risk in light of the clinical research on this issue.
21.2 It is lawful to provide information in Ireland about abortions abroad, subject to strict conditions. It is not lawful to encourage or advocate an abortion in individual cases.
21.3 You have a duty to provide care, support and follow-up services for women who have an abortion abroad.
21.4 In current obstetrical practice, rare complications can arise where therapeutic intervention (including termination of a pregnancy) is required at a stage when, due to extreme immaturity of the baby, there may be little or no hope of the baby surviving. In these exceptional circumstances, it may be necessary to intervene to terminate the pregnancy to protect the life of the mother, while making every effort to preserve the life of the baby.