A parliamentary question was recently submitted to the Health Minister by Carol Nolan TD who asked an important question concerning abortion and women’s health and safety . 

She wanted to know “the number of patients that received post termination of pregnancy care in maternity hospitals from January 2019 to date; the number of those that were for medical abortions provided by general practitioner or community, family planning or sexual health clinics” and she asked the Minister if he would make a statement on the matter.

In response Deputy Nolan received an answer which began with this statement:

“Data on terminations is collated by the Department of Health via the notifications process. The Minister for Health must prepare a report on the notifications received in a given year, not later than 30 June the following year and lay it before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The annual report for 2019 was laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas on the 30 June 2020 and is attached for your convenience.”

It’s worth noting that the annual report referred to contains almost no information, and seems to have been designed to keep the abortion regime as opaque as possible.

The reply then continued:

“In relation to women accessing post termination of pregnancy care, all 19 maternity units are providing such care to women as they present and as required. Common presentations would relate to relate to concerns about failed abortion, persistent bleeding and/or heavy bleeding and management of pain.  Not all women presenting to hospitals are admitted nor do all undergo a procedure or intervention. In this context the information sought is not available via the national hospital activity recording system.”
 
“The National Women and Infants Health Programme, working with the Department of Health, is working on developing mechanisms and date collection methods regarding post abortion care for quality assurance purposes.”

The answer, on behalf of the Minister for Health, is ended with a courtesy: “I trust this clarifies the matter.”

Well no, it doesn’t actually.

The questions that were asked could hardly be simpler– what is the number to date of patients presenting for post-abortion treatment to our maternity hospitals under our new abortion regime, and how many of these were medical abortions (i.e. chemical abortions using  pills)

Neither question was answered, not even approximately. The excuse given for not answering is that not all patients, who present with problems, are admitted to the maternity hospitals, and those who are not admitted will not be recorded in the hospital activity recording system.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a nonsensical reply, given that the questions were about numbers.  The only sensible answers to what was actually asked are:

(a) To date, x women have presented with post-abortion complications, and y of these were for medical abortions

(b) Of the x women overall, z were considered serious enough to be admitted to (or retained in) hospital for treatment. Of the y medical abortions, w were admitted to hospital.

If the public servants had supplied the Minister with the values of x, y, z, w, and if the Minister had passed this information on to Carol Nolan, then this would have indeed “clarified the matter”. What was actually supplied instead was the lamest of excuses. Not all who presented were admitted, we are told – but they were all recorded somewhere, and their numbers can therefore be counted, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

I was under the impression that parliamentary questions were taken seriously by politicians, and by the public service. Which is as it should be, in a properly-functioning democracy. If every effort is not made to answer these questions fully, surely the whole thing is just a massive waste of time? But I have to say that this is not the first time that questions from Carol Nolan to this Minister have been met with responses that can fairly be described as evasive.

There is a sinister background to all of this. There seems to be tacit agreement in political circles here, and in our media, that abortion is an issue that is now best ignored. If some pro-life individuals in the Dáil refuse to cooperate with that, then the instinct is to fudge (which is what happened above). And if fudging is not possible – as, for example, when it emerged recently that nearly 900 women in 2019 changed their minds about abortion, indicating that the 3-day waiting period is having a beneficial effect – then the media will resort to outright censorship i.e not reporting the unpalatable data at all.

The information about the 900 women, for example, was not reported at all by RTE News, the Irish Times, The Irish Examiner or the Irish Independent, though it was covered here on Gript.

In theory, the 2018 abortion legislation is to be reviewed by the Oireachtas in 2021. But most of the data, which one would expect to inform such a review, is not, in fact, being collected – and this seemed to be by deliberate design when the Minister’s predecessor, Simon Harris, refused to accept all relevant amendments to his 2018 abortion bill. Now we have another Minister who seems equally determined not to find anything amiss with the operation of this legislation. Worse than that, he seems determined to prevent anyone else from finding anything amiss with it either. And worse still, the mainstream media here actively cooperate with him in this strategy.

Abortion is still a matter of immense importance. The questions will keep coming, and the answers will get published somewhere. Were there any post-abortion deaths? How many cases of heavy bleeding? Persistent bleeding? Persistent pain? How many abortions resulted in long-term damage to the mother’s health? How many “failed” abortions, and how were they dealt with? How many have reported with post-abortion psychiatric disorders? How many self-administered abortions went seriously wrong? Have some abortion centres got higher rates of complications? Has there been any increase in the number of post-abortion complications in 2020 after the relaxation of the rules on GP attendance for medical abortions?

I would love to think that the National Women and Infants Health Programme, alluded to in the letter above, will address these and similar questions. Sadly, on the evidence of that letter, it seems more likely that this body, too, sees its role as obfuscation rather than fact-finding and fact-reporting.

All of which suggests to me that there may be something to hide. If the adopted strategy, of heavy reliance on GP-supervised medical abortions, had turned out as problem-free (from the maternal health standpoint) as we were led to believe at the time, then politicians would be boasting about it, and the media would be gloating too.

In Ireland, information on any negative outcomes of abortion provision is mostly being buried by the politicians, and mostly being ignored by the journalists. That won’t stop those of us who are genuinely committed to transparency from asking questions.

 


 

Jim Stack MSc PhD is a retired Mathematician/Statistician, and is writing here in a personal capacity. Most of his research output is listed on https://www.researchgate.net/scientific-contributions/39162763_Jim_Stack