Don’t Use Mental Health To Justify Abortion Law Change, Psychiatrists Warn
17 May 2018
Professor Patricia Casey (right), Dr Anne Doherty and Dr Martin Mahon at a press conference in Dublin. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Prof Casey also said that there was no evidence that abortion was a benefit to women’s mental health
A group of psychiatrists have said in an open letter that they do not want to see spurious appeals to 'mental health' being used to justify abortion.
The intervention comes with just over a week to go (and with polls tightening) until Ireland votes on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment and legislate for liberal access to abortion.
Abortion isn't "healthcare" or "treatment"
The open letter, published yesterday, is signed by 26 consultant psychiatrists, and argues that presenting the case for repeal in terms of "healthcare" is misleading and inverts the true purpose of medicine.
It points out that "under the law as proposed by the Government, the vast majority of abortions would involve healthy babies and healthy women. This is not ‘healthcare’ but something else entirely." The fact that abortion would be allowed up to 12 weeks for any reason, it goes on, "makes it even more misleading for Government spokespeople or pro-choice advocates to continually present abortion as a form of ‘treatment'."
However, the letter is most concerned with the fact that after 12 weeks, the law would conform closely to that in the UK, where a health ground (either physical or mental) must be offered as a justification for abortion.
"As consultant psychiatrists, it is the so-called 'mental health' ground that particularly concerns us because we know from official UK statistics that 97pc of the almost 200,000 abortions which occur annually in the UK, take place under the 'mental health' ground.
"In fact, these abortions are almost always for socio-economic reasons," a fact acknowledged by the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which said in its report of Irish women who travel for abortion or obtain pills: "What became clear during evidence is that the majority of terminations are for socio-economic reasons".
The psychiatrists say: "Given the experience in the UK, we can confidently say that abortions taking place in this country after 12 weeks will be authorised under the ‘mental health’ ground. As in the UK, there will be little or no justification for this in the great majority of cases. We do not want to see spurious appeals to ‘mental health’ being used to justify post-12-week abortions."
Not true medicine
During a briefing on the letter, briefing Prof Patricia Casey, emeritus professor of psychiatry at UCD and consultant at the Mater hospital, said her profession must operate on evidence-based healthcare and there was no evidence that abortion was a benefit to women’s mental health. (For a review of the evidence, see Abortion and Women's Health by Greg Pike)
Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Anne Doherty said that the heads of bill did not specify that a doctor signing of abortion on the grounds of mental health had to be qualified in psychiatry. Furthermore, she said, "someone who presents from 12-24 weeks of pregnancy who has mental health problems that are causing difficulty and distress should be treated and mental health problems as a term is extremely vague".
The letter concludes: "To use ‘health’ as a justification for abortion, when the vast majority of abortions do not take place on any kind of health ground, inverts the true purpose of medicine and doctors who value their calling should have nothing to do with this. Our Minister for Health, for his part, must defend the true purpose of medicine."
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