Irish Medical Council seeks to silence pro-choice doctors


THE 'PRO-LIFE' MOVEMENT argues that abortion is never medically necessary to save the life of a mother. They justify this by inventing a distinction between direct abortion, where the intention is to terminate pregnancy and 'indirect' abortion where the intention is to avoid some life threatening condition. In both cases the medical procedure followed is the same, in both cases the pregnancy is terminated. It is crucial to the 'pro-life' movement that they convince the public that abortion is never medically necessary. Therefore they continue to create this totally semantic distinction between 'direct' and 'indirect' abortion. Some doctors fear that under these terms, medical decisions could be brought through the courts. They would have to consider the threat of disbarment if their 'intention' is interpreted incorrectly. It would be difficult to practice as a doctor under such conditions.

Unfortunately, this 'pro-life' definition of a medical procedure has been adopted by the Irish Medical Council, the body that regulates doctors. In their latest guide to ethical conduct and behavior, they state that "the deliberate and intentional destruction of the unborn child is professional misconduct". It is worth noting that the phrase "unborn child" was invented by the 'pro-life' movement for use in the 1983 referendum and is a non-medical word. Its inclusion shows the hand of the 'pro-life' movement in drafting these guidelines.

These guidelines also contradict the Supreme Court judgment in the X case which allows abortion where there is a "real and substantial risk to the life" of the pregnant mother. This means that should a doctor perform an abortion under the terms of the Supreme Court decision, which would be his or her legal right, they could end up losing their right to practice, by being disbarred by the Medical Council. Then it would be back to the courts once again. Once more the right to have an abortion would be decided by lawyers in courtrooms not by women in medical clinics.

The abortion question is currently being debated by the government. The Medical Council's guide is a clear attempt to intimidate and frighten doctors into avoiding taking a stand on this issue. The issue is also one whereby no legislation has been brought before the Dáil since the votes for both the right to travel and the right to abortion information were accepted by the people in a referendum over five years ago.

Contraception threatened?

The 'pro-life' arguments rest on a definition of 'personhood' that holds that "there can be no argument but that human life begins at conception, and from conception every human being is a person" (Prof. Eamon O'Dwyer, letters page, Irish Times, 30/11/1998). They however have been conspicuously quiet about the fact that such a definition would also outlaw use of contraceptives such as the coil and the morning after pill. Once again the arguments that they are using now do not reveal their full agenda.

We would argue that the issue of "personhood" is not the key question in this debate. Rather it is the issue of choice, the decision whether or not to have an abortion must lie with each individual pregnant woman. Only they should have the power to make decisions which affect their own bodies.

Aileen O'Carroll

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 56 published in March 1999