Senior lecturer criticises “paternalistic” X-case legislation

Lia Flattery

Staff Writer

Professor Veronica O’Keane, a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry and consultant psychiatrist at AMNCH Hospital (the Adelaide and Meath Hospital), has criticised the X-case legislation for its “paternalistic view” that doctors should choose whether or not a woman is allowed to have an abortion.
In a talk organised by ‘Medical Students for Choice’ and ‘Doctors for Choice’a during International Women’s Week last Wednesday, Professor O’Keane condemned the fact that doctors have become “so involved in the legislation [that] they have trumped the woman’s right to choose.” She said she did not think that psychiatrists should venture into issues of pregnancy and abortion, in which they have no expertise, and that the same goes for obstetricians who venture into the territory of psychiatrists and issues of mental health. Addressing students, O’Keane said she particularly disapproves of ‘pro-life’ terminology, saying that the ‘pro-life’ language needs to be “hit on the head.” “All doctors are pro-life…The idea that I would be described as not pro-life is very offensive to me,” she said. Describing the pro-life stance as “a very strange, extreme position”, she went on to criticise the “love them both” approach taken by the pro-life side in recent years, i.e. striving to preserve both the life of the mother and the child equally. “I don’t think loving a woman is compatible with forcing a woman to endure” a pregnancy that causes her harm, she stated. Of pro-life supporters, she asked, “did they love Savita [Halappanavar] and did they love X? I don’t think so.”
O’Keane also criticised the manner in which Irish society and media have polarised the debate and portrayed each side as extremists. She sought to clarify that the pro-choice spectrum is “a very wide spectrum.” “The vast majority of people are pro-choice, they may not define themselves as pro-choice but they are,” she told the audience, going on to say that even those who condone abortion only if carried out in the first trimester of pregnancy or only if a foetal anomaly is detected are still pro-choice just in a “restricted way” as they are nonetheless handing the decision over to the woman.
In response to fears that by legalising abortion the “floodgates” will be opened, O’Keane remarked that “the floodgates are open” and have been for many years, with Irish women either having abortions in “a secretive way” or by going abroad. She said that preventing women from receiving abortions in a safe way has forced many to seek unsafe or illicit means of doing so, for example by purchasing illegal and potentially hazardous abortion pills online or even by resorting to infanticide. “Infanticide does happen,” she said, “it doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen.” The fact that abortion is not permitted in Ireland for women who are the victims of rape or incest is particularly “unusual” by European standards, she said, as the only other European states following such a policy are Andorra, Malta and the Vatican.
O’Keane is among a group of medical professionals calling for the introduction of “extensive training” for psychiatrists in the area of abortion. Under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill Act 2013, a request for abortion by a woman at risk of suicide must be reviewed by two psychiatrists and an obstetrician before a decision is made.