This afternoon the Dail will vote on the abortion bill. I really should keep out of this because I have a vested interest, but maybe if I provide the background of this vested interest it’ll leave a space for comment.
I was the last of eight children, with a gap of more than three years between me and the second-last sibling. That was because my mother had been told after No 7 that if she had any more children, she’d be seriously endangering her health. Anyway she became pregnant again, I was born and my deeply relieved mother named me after the patron saint of hopeless cases. Had she lived in a society where the diagnosis of danger to the mother’s health was accepted as grounds for abortion, I wouldn’t be.
For an expectant mother to ignore all medical advice about dangers to her health would be reckless in the extreme. But my own case points to one essential: any medical prediction has to be made with as many second or third opinions as can be mustered. In other words, to be guided by medical opinion, we need to trust that medical opinion is reliable - that what it predicts is highly likely to occur. Because doctors do make mistaken diagnoses.
In the south’s abortion bill, the point of debate is the clause which permits abortion where two psychiatrists and an obstetrician agree that the expectant mother is contemplating suicide. I’m not a medical doctor, much less a psychiatrist, but from what I can gather, psychiatrists themselves admit that they are not capable of accurately interpreting a patient’s talk of suicide. My own daughter (about whom I’ve been boasting shamelessly of late) is considering psychiatry as a career path in medicine, but a major factor that might deter her would be the danger that misreading of a patient’s needs might result in the patient taking his or her own life.
In one respect the south’s abortion bill is a sham. It doesn’t address the problem of the eleven women who, on average, travel to England every day to have an abortion: threats of suicide by pregnant women form only a tiny proportion of those who seek an abortion. In another respect the bill is anything but a sham: if it legalises abortion for those women who declare thoughts of killing themselves, and that declaration is pronounced valid by two psychiatrists and an obstetrician, it’ll make clear that abortion may be performed in Ireland on thin-ice medical verification. Once that is established, and the media in Ireland continue to present the foetus as not-yet-human (a notion I have never understood), the doors to widely-available legal abortion will certainly have been unlocked.
But then, as I say, I’m biased. So far, all things considered, I’ve enjoyed being alive.