By Dearbhail McDonald Legal Editor
Saturday December 12 2009
DOCTORS treating pregnant women whose unborn babies have serious foetal abnormalities are afraid to refer them to expert facilities abroad because of fears of being accused of procuring an abortion.
Professor John Bonnar, the former chairman of the institute of obstetrics and gynaecology, said that Irish-based doctors were afraid that if they referred a patient to a foreign facility, they would be arrested and brought before the courts.
"It (a criminal prosecution) is not going to happen," Professor Bonnar told the Irish Independent.
"But doctors are reluctant, they are wary in case they have gardai arriving at their door. There is a fear that if you refer your patient to an expert foetal clinic or hospital and she ultimately decides to discontinue her pregnancy, you will stand accused of being involved in an unlawful abortion."
The debate around the status of legal abortion in Ireland has been revived in the wake of a landmark legal action earlier this week in the European Court of Human Rights where the Government robustly defended Ireland's restrictive abortion regime.
Three women, known as A, B and C, told a 17 judge Grand Chamber -- which is convened in cases of major importance -- that their health and human rights were violated because they had to travel to Britain to terminate their pregnancies.
The ECHR asked the Irish Government to provide statistics or information as to how many lawful abortions were carried out every year in Ireland.
In response, the State supplied a list of figures for women discharged with a diagnosis of ectopic pregnancies between 2005 and 2008, but could not state how many women had miscarried naturally or required a termination.
No figures were provided for women forced to undergo a radical hysterectomy -- the removal of her uterus and cervix -- to save her life.
During the hearing, lawyers for the State argued that there was a "clear and bright blue line" in Irish law that was known and applied where there was a risk to the life of the mother.
But that view has been rejected by the Irish Family Planning Association which supported the three women in the action.
"While abortion is technically legal in Ireland when a woman's life is at risk, there are no legal or clinical guidelines to assist doctors in assess whether a particular risk qualifies as a risk to life," said an IFPA spokesperson.
"The Government makes no provision to protect a woman's health and well-being.
"Asking a doctor to distinguish between a threat to a woman's life and a threat to her health in medical practice is unworkable.
"Moreover, forcing a woman to endure a progressive and increasingly dangerous condition before she is deemed eligible for a legal abortion is both impractical and inhumane."
Prof Bonnar, who has carried out up to five terminations throughout his medical career to save the life of a pregnant woman, said doctors had nothing to fear if they intervened to save a mother's life.
But he said that advances in medical technology, which have resulted in pregnant women seeking pre-natal tests to ascertain if their unborn child had any abnormalities, had placed doctors in a difficult position as they were ethically obliged to provide vital after-care and support should a woman abort her foetus.
"If a woman has a radical hysterectomy to save her life resulting in the termination of her pregnancy, it is not an abortion as the surgical procedure would be carried out whether she was pregnant or not," said Prof Bonnar who has called on fellow doctors to "speak out" on medical practice surrounding lawful abortions in this country.