In May 2018, with just a week to go to the vote in the referendum, the Yes vote was slipping in the polls. An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, made an urgent and emotive pitch to voters.
In an interview with Seán O Rourke on the country’s national radio station, RTE, he focused on the danger of using abortion pills at home without medical supervision.
It was “only a matter of time” he warned before a woman would die after taking abortion pills. Varadkar then chose his next words to make the maximum impact.
“Let’s not wait for this to happen. If there is a No vote on Friday, I think it’s only a matter of time before someone haemorrhages or bleeds to death after taking one of these pills unregulated,” he said.
It was a pretty convincing piece of scaremongering. The presenter, of course, failed to ask the most pertinent question of theTaoiseach – if abortion pills could be this dangerous, then why were Varadkar’s fellow campaigners actively sending them to women to take in an unsupervised setting?
Varadkar then went on to reassure listeners that abortion pills would only be available under strict conditions once the 8th was repealed.
“There will be restrictions. So if you’re facing a crisis pregnancy, the first thing you’ll do is go to your doctor. Your doctor will be able to offer you alternatives, offer you counselling, there will be a 72 hour pause or waiting period for reflection … and also the doctor has to confirm that the pregnancy is less than 10 weeks gestation,” he told the nation.
Simon Harris, Minister for Health, also gave these assurances when presenting his abortion bill in 2018.
In response to a direct question from Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick, Harris told the Select Committee on Health, in November 2018, that under the legislation “termination of pregnancy services in Ireland is not going to be done by tele–medicine.”
Referring to the requirement in the abortion bill specifying whether pregnant women would be exmined, Peter Fitzpatrick asked a pertinent question.
“When someone says “examine” the pregnant woman, to me that means physically examining a woman.” he said “Is the Minister telling me that two doctors will not ring a pregnant woman, talk to her and not see her physically at all? Will the Minister confirm that will not happen?” he asked.
“That is correct,” replied Harris.
“Termination of pregnancy services in Ireland is not going to be done by tele-medicine.”
It is envisaged that most of the abortions that now take place in Ireland are undertaken using the abortion pill. The HSE’s website until now advised that the pill would be prescribed by GPs or clinics after a physical examination.
“You need to attend a pre-abortion consultation before having an abortion,” the HSE website stated. “Where you have your pre-abortion consultation is up to you. You can have your consultation in either a GP surgery that provides abortion services, family planning clinic that provides abortion services [or a] women’s health clinic that provides abortion services.
However, Harris has now upended all the assurances given and announced new Department of Health that women seeking an abortion during the coronavirus crisis will not need to visit a GP.
So, contrary to his previous denials, abortion in Ireland will now be “done by tele-medicine”.
There can be little doubt that these measures may also endanger women’s safety and even their lives. Without ultrasound, a doctor cannot ascertain the gestation of the woman’s pregnancy, nor can a potentially life-threatening ectopic pregnancy be diagnosed.
That reality makes Leo Varadkar’s concerns about women dying after taking abortion pills without medical supervision ring hollow indeed.
As ever, Harris shows no compassion at all for the baby whose little body will be expelled by the taking of these pills, and no mention is made of increasing supports to offer women real alternatives in pregnancy.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Harris and Varadkar both have form in saying one thing in regard to abortion and then going on to break those promises. It does seem horribly sad, however, that in the middle of a national crisis, with the death count from coronavirus climbing, they are focused on making it easier than ever to end the lives of the most vulnerable human beings.