Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Irish Times: Up to 683 may have had lawful abortions in 2008

by CARL O'BRIEN Chief Reporter

Wed, Jan 06, 2010

UP TO 683 women developed complications during pregnancy in 2008 which may have required a lawful abortion, according to Government estimates.

However, authorities do not have any precise figures to show how many lawful terminations of pregnancies took place in Ireland. The details are contained in State documents lodged with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) last month as part of its defence to a challenge to Ireland’s abortion laws.

In this case – known as A, B and C versus Ireland – three women are challenging the State’s abortion laws on the basis that they were forced to travel abroad to terminate a pregnancy which threatened their health or wellbeing.

The case was heard last month and a ruling is expected towards the end of the year.

After a request from the ECHR for figures on the number of lawful abortions which take place in Ireland, the State said it was not possible to provide these details.

However, it said the Department of Health had undertaken a recent analysis of a number of medical conditions that might require the termination of a pregnancy.

It says the number of these cases – 683 in 2008, 628 in 2007 and 543 in 2006 – as well as Ireland’s low rate of maternal death challenge the assertion made by the women’s lawyers that abortion is not available in life-threatening situations.

Data from the State’s acute hospitals show there were 683 discharges with a diagnosis of an ectopic pregnancy in 2008. Such pregnancies – where the foetus develops outside the uterus – can be life-threatening as there is a risk of rupture and haemorrhage.

However, the figures do not differentiate between procedures to terminate an ectopic pregnancy, procedures following a spontaneous miscarriage as a result of an ectopic pregnancy, or “procedures to treat a ruptured ectopic pregnancy”.

As a result, the State says it is not possible to state exactly how many of the procedures were to terminate an ectopic pregnancy.

It emphasises, however, that Ireland has a particularly low level of maternal death which is significantly below the EU average.

This, the State argues, challenges the “unsubstantiated” argument made by legal representatives for the three women that abortion is largely unavailable in Ireland even in life-threatening situations.

It adds: “Such statements fail to take account of the evidence of medical practitioners that in life-threatening situations they ‘will intervene always’.”

Submissions on behalf of the women state that there remains considerable ambiguity over guidelines available to medical professionals over the precise circumstances when it is legal to terminate a pregnancy.

Much of this doubt is down to the Government’s repeated failure to legislate for abortion in the circumstances of the X case, where the life of the mother is at risk.

They also state that abortion was not an option for the three women despite threats to their health and wellbeing.

One of the cases – “Ms B” – involved a woman who became pregnant despite taking the morning-after pill the day after intercourse.

She says she was advised by two different doctors that she ran a significant risk of an ectopic pregnancy, but that terminating her pregnancy in Ireland was not an option.

Another of the women – “Ms C” – was in remission from cancer and became unintentionally pregnant. She was unable to find a doctor willing to make a determination as to whether her life would be at risk if she continued to term and, as a result, felt compelled to travel abroad for an abortion.

© 2010 The Irish Times