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Developments in the case of Ireland’s new “Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act”

The September issue of image news brought the disappointing news that Ireland had passed its controversial “Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act” into law. The law now allows terminations to be carried out where there is a threat to the mother, or where there is medical consensus that the mother would take her own life over the pregnancy. It has now emerged that there are groups who are campaigning to have further grounds for abortion included in the legislation – namely that abortion on the grounds of fatal foetal abnormalities should be allowed.

One group, called Terminations for Medical Reasons (TFMR) have been reported in the Irish Journal, sharing their personal stories and reasons for a further change to the Irish abortion laws at a press conference. The main crux of their argument lies in their plea for women who are diagnosed as carrying babies with fatal foetal abnormalities should be allowed to receive ‘treatment’ – i.e an abortion, which is not the terminology used by The Journal – in their home country and should not have to travel abroad. Three women shared their personal experiences of terminating much wanted babies because of such diagnoses and all three women are at various stages of filing petitions to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, with the support and backing of the Centre for Reproductive Rights and the TFMR.

Whilst this development is worrying in and of itself, the statistics implemented by TFMR at this press conference to support their argument – and therefore reported verbatim in The Journal and in other news sources – have been incorrectly interpreted and over inflated for political gain. None of these incorrect publications have been retracted, with the exception of an article by the Irish Independent as reported by Dr Peter Saunders in his blog.


Dr Saunders traces the history of these popular pro-choice statistics back to May 2013, when they were published in an article by Breaking News Ireland. The article pre-dates the passing of the “Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act” and reports the response of the Irish Minister for Health, James Reilly, to the suggestion – by the TFMR - that fatal foetal abnormality should be included as a reason for abortion in the soon-to-be legislation and that they had been told there would be legal grounds for such requests. His reply mirrors that of the Prime Minister of Ireland, Enda Kenny, in an article from June 2013 in the Irish Times; that it would be extremely difficult to include fatal foetal abnormalities in the legislation because it would be in breach of the constitution. In the latter article, Kenny was challenged by independent TD (Member of  Irish Parliament),  John Halligan, with the same statistics presented to Reilly the previous month, that there are 1,500 women diagnosed as expecting a baby with fatal foetal abnormalities and of these, 80% decide to travel abroad to terminate their pregnancy. According to Halligan, it was “barbaric” that the State forced them

“…in tragic circumstances to leave their home and country without care and advice at a time when they should be surrounded by their loved ones [instead of facing] a crisis of conscience, whether to continue with their doomed pregnancy only to watch their baby die in their arms after taking its first breath, or the end the pregnancy.”

As Dr Saunders argues, there are two issues – with the actual statistics themselves and the emotive language being employed by Halligan when discussing them. In his blog, Dr Saunders researches the number of Irish women who had to travel, as these statistics suggest, to England or Wales for an abortion. If the statistics are to be believed, then there would be 1,200 women who had to travel to England or Wales for an abortion – 80% of 1,500. (It is assumed that by ‘travel’ it is implied that travel to England and Wales would be the most likely countries chosen by Irish women due to locality and expenses. Other countries are probably used too, but it would be highly unusual that only 51 out of the supposed 1,200 chose adjoining, easily available countries.) However, Saunders discovers that “in the years 2007 to 2011 were 27, 29, 42, 68 and 51 respectively.” These statistics came from the British Department of Health and are supported by Niamh Ui Bhriain in her article for the Irish Independent, which acknowledges the statistics from the British Department of Health are “very clear”:

“[in] 2011 there were 36 abortions carried out on Irish women for these conditions [anencephaly, Trisomy 18 (Edward’s Syndrome) and Patau’s Syndrome]. A further 14 abortions took place for conditions such as Down Syndrome and spina bifida, but they are not considered terminal or fatal conditions. In 2010, the number of abortions was slightly higher, in 2009 it was slightly lower.”

The impact of the statistics disintegrates further when Halligan’s language is taken into account. Halligan implies that every baby who, having been diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality, will die immediately after its first breath if not before. Saunders analyses the breakdown of reasons for abortions in 2011: “of the 51 ground E abortions in 2011, 60% (31 in total) were for chromosomal abnormalities including Down’s syndrome (11), Edward’s syndrome (7) and Patau’s syndrome (7).” These conditions are indeed fatal for the babies concerned, but would not cause death “after [their] first breath” as Halligan claims– there are reports for most of the conditions where babies live for days, months or even years in rare, exceptional circumstances.

In summary, the actual statistics are somewhat irrelevant – whether abortion rates are on the rise or not – but to misrepresent the facts and statistics and then for these statistics to be repeated with no accountability or verification in the national press multiple times, show just how dangerous they can be. It is ironic too, that the women from the press conference originally organised by TFMR were asking “wrap your arms around us…don’t kick us out” and the views expressed by pro-life campaigners on the topic advocate the same response by a different means. Ui Bhriain suggests investing effort and money into neonatal hospices for families affected by such conditions rather than termination, as she explains:

“These babies are not 'incompatible with life', no child is. They are terminally ill, and their parents deserve more than our sympathy, they need our support.”







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