Latest: Campaigners question whether there should be time limit for some abortions

Update 9pm: Placing time limits on abortion for women who received a diagnosis of severe or fatal foetal anomaly is unworkable, campaigners for those affected have said.

In an emotional address to the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, Gerry Edwards, chairman of Termination for Medical Reasons Ireland, laid bare the trauma of travelling home from the UK on a ferry or plane with the remains of a still born child.

He asked politicians if any of them would be comfortable with a relative or neighbour going through the ordeal.

Mr Edwards said mothers and fathers who find themselves in these distressing circumstances feel abandoned and treated like "medical refugees".

And he said they can only make a decision on whether to seek an abortion abroad after getting the best information on the diagnosis from their doctors.

"It is important that we point out here that it is impossible to require families to get this information and process it, and to arrive at a decision within a 22-week gestation limit," he said.

"This limit is one area that we feel must be reconsidered by this committee.

"Nobody should be judged for coming to the point where hope ends."

Gerry Edwards. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Mr Edwards's son Joshua died from anencephaly, a condition that prevents the normal development of the brain and skull.

He said some families have to leave the baby behind in the UK for a post mortem.

Others are later able to repatriate the ashes of their child.

He said there is then the question of whether a priest will grant a funeral in Ireland.

"It makes it almost impossible for us to grieve normally and leads to more traumatic, complicated and disenfranchised grief than would be expected if we were properly supported throughout this entire process," he said.

Mr Edwards said other families find the ordeal of travelling to the UK for an abortion too arduous.

He said abortion services should be part of maternity care and available to all regardless of location or financial means.

Mr Edwards also said protests or harassment of patients seeking abortion services should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

The Oireachtas committee met on Wednesday to examine recommendations on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution ahead of a planned referendum in the middle of next year.

Update - 5.02pm: Independent TD and pro-life campaigner Mattie McGrath has stormed out of the Oireachtas abortion committee after making fresh claims it is biased and accusing other members of disrespecting his views, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

Mr McGrath left the meeting on the affects of abortion or being forced to continue a pregnancy against a woman's wishes after taking issue with Sinn Féin TD Jonathan O'Brien saying he had "mesmerised" him with his pro-life questions.

During a two-hour meeting with Tallaght mental health services consultant psychiatrist Dr Veronica Keane, Mr McGrath asked if the expert was opposed to "genocide" as she was advocating for the legalisation of abortion.

When it was pointed out by other committee members Mr McGrath may have meant "gender-cide" - a situation apparent in countries like India and China where some abortions take place because parents would prefer a boy to a girl - Prof. Keane said commenting is "outside my expertise".

Mr McGrath was told by Fine Gael senator and committee chair Catherine Noone not to ask the question, at which point he hit out at the committee over alleged bias and said "this is why I wrote to the committee on procedure and privileges".

The Independent TD then entered into a shouting match with a number of other committee members, and referred to the murder of Jean McConville during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin TD Jonathan O'Brien said "I've been mesmerised" by Mr McGrath's comments, at which point Mr McGrath stood up, grabbed his files and pointed at Ms Noone, before shouting: "Do you want me to be thrown out? Are we having a committee or is this thing just a charade? I told you, this has been an absolute charade from the start".

Independent senator Lynn Ruane shouted back at Mr McGrath saying that "I want to disagree about Mattie standing up and pointing at the chair, it is totally disrespectful".

As Mr McGrath stormed out, Fianna Fáil health spokesperson Billy Kelleher said "mesmerised is not an offensive word Mattie, it's not an offensive word".

Moments later as the committee ended the first of three public meetings today, Prof. Keane told committee chair Ms Noone she was "very impressed with your... skills" in handling the situation.

Asked by Ms Noone if he was "mesmerised" by what happened, Mr O'Brien added: "Chair, I've been mesmerised and traumatised."

During the same meeting, Fine Gael TD and prominent pro-life member Peter Fitzpatrick engaged in a lengthy row with Prof. Keane over his claim 100,000 people's lives have been saved by the eighth amendment since 1983.

After being unable to provide a specific reference for the statistic, a pro-life campaigner took advantage of the row involving Mr McGrath by standing up from his gallery seat and handing Mr Fitzpatrick a note on the 100,000 figure.

It is understood this individual was Tim Jackson, who last month was involved in a short-lived 9am to 5pm hunger strike outside the Dáil in protest at any potential decision to remove the eighth amendment.

Update 4pm: A leading psychiatrist has said everyone's mental health is being damaged by Ireland's constitutional rules and restrictions on abortion.

The Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution was told that there is no register of women who have sought a termination for mental health reasons and been denied.

Professor Veronica O'Keane, of Tallaght Mental Health Services and Trinity College Dublin, said there is no information to say some of those women did not die later.

The psychiatrist told the committee that legislation which allows for a termination if there is a real and substantial risk to a woman's life, including the threat of suicide, is clumsy and difficult for women.

Prof O'Keane said the experience of women who travel to the UK for an abortion has been made real, both at the Citizens' Assembly and during the @TwoWomenTravel publicity campaign.

She said: "I would go further and say that the mental health of every person in Ireland is being damaged by the Eighth Amendment.

"We are all shamed by the current situation."

Prof Veronica O'Keane. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Prof O'Keane said changing abortion legislation in Ireland will not lead to an increase in the number of women who terminate a pregnancy.

And she praised the Citizens' Assembly and its decision to recommend no distinction between mental and physical health for access to abortion.

"It is an enormous relief," she said.

"It is a relief to those of us working in psychiatry and to allied mental health professions, to colleagues from other medical and surgical disciplines, and to the many Irish people who suffer from mental health problems."

Prof O'Keane also noted research of more than 100,000 women in the US which found unwanted pregnancy increases the risk of perinatal depression by 50%.

The Oireachtas committee is examining what recommendations it will make on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution ahead of a planned referendum in the middle of next year.

Earlier: The chair of the Oireachtas abortion committee has offered pro-life campaigners the opportunity to bring in doctors and other medical experts who oppose terminations next month amid ongoing claims of bias in the group, writes Political Correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

Fine Gael senator and committee chair Catherine Noone offered the olive branch as she separately denied any bias allegations and insisted the cross-party group "did not refuse" to hear the testimony of witnesses because of the "public position" they hold on abortion.

In the past fortnight, the committee has been beset by claims of bias, with Independent senator Ronan Mullen and Independent TD Mattie McGrath threatening to quit and pro-life campaigner and psychiatrist Prof Patrica Casey pulling out of a planned meeting.

In the letter to committee members, Ms Noone said the claim is untrue and warning ongoing allegations of bias are "distracting" from the work of the cross-party group.

However, she in a bid to end the allegations, she said an extra date will be made available in November to allow other witnesses who are likely to represent pro-life views to have their voices heard.

"I would like to take the opportunity to invite members who wish to propose other witnesses who they believe will provide additional evidence and expertise to the already scheduled list of witnesses to put forward their suggestions.

"I would be happy to schedule an additional hearing in late November for these witnesses," the letter from Ms Noone, sent this afternoon, read.

Fine Gael senator and committee chair Catherine Noone

"There is a matter being played out in the media that requires clarification and is distracting from the work of this Oireachtas committee.

"It relates to a perception that the committee showed a bias in the way witnesses were selected. I would like to recall the earlier decision of the committee which was that the criteria approved when we sat down to plan our work was we would not repeat the work of the Citizens Assembly.

"Instead, we would use our time to examine the recommendations of the assembly with expert witnesses, and some of the witnesses we selected had in fact given evidence.

"Committee members were invited to submit the names of experts whose testimony would enable the committee to fully test the recommendations of the assembly.

"I want to be clear, and the committee records bear this out, the committee did not refuse to hear testimony of any witness because of the known public position they held on abortion.

"The fact that many of our witnesses, for example medical professionals, have advised the committee to recommend constitutional change does not make them biased.

"However, if there are experts who can give a different view, I am certain the committee will be open to hearing from them," she wrote.

The letter is one of a number of issues expected to be discussed today in addition to the scheduled meetings with groups affected by abortion.

Among other issues to be discussed will be a call from Solidarity-PBP TD Ruth Coppinger to hold a vote potentially as soon as this week as "a delayed vote on repeal is dangerous for all who want to deal with the reality of abortion".

As reported by the Irish Examiner on Tuesday, key Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil committee members are likely to block any attempt to vote this week over claims it would undermine the independence of the committee.


 

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