Credit: Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) & screenshot via Oireachtas TV

Senator: Rise in abortion for Down Syndrome shows that ‘something has happened in our country’

Independent Senator Rónán Mullen has highlighted the increase in abortions for Down Syndrome in Ireland, telling the Senate that “something has happened” in our country since the 2018 abortion referendum.

Speaking before the Senate last week, he referred to a front-page report in the Irish Times, published on St. Stephen’s Day, which revealed that 95% of parents whose babies are diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome at the Rotunda Hospital choose to have an abortion. 

The revelation came from the master of the Dublin hospital, Professor Fergal Malone. Prof Malone, who has been a vocal advocate of abortion legislation, told the paper: “The reality is the vast majority choose to terminate. I do not have a view on whether that is the right thing. We do not advocate for it, that is just the lived experience”.

In 2018, just 5 years ago, Prof Malone said that “approximately half” of all parents with a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome aborted the unborn baby – while the other half did not.

He insisted at that time that it was his experience that it was “not a given” that parents will opt for abortion if they were told by doctors that their unborn child would be born with a chromosomal abnormality such as Down syndrome.

Commenting on the report, Senator Mullen said that it evidenced a significant rise for abortions for Down Syndrome post-repeal. 

“I think it is more than the lived experience because it is the learned experience,” he said. 

“We knew before the abortion referendum in 2018 that the figure was somewhere between 50% and 60%. Something has happened in our country”.

The barrister and senator went on to quote the words of the late Pope Benedict XVI, the former pope who died on New Year’s Eve, a few days after the publication of the report.

Quoting Benedict, he told the Senate: “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary, each of us is the result of a thought of God. 

“I could not help but think, as I reflected back on The Irish Times article, how much richer that vision is, how much more noble it is compared with the cold and sterile words coming from the medical profession or some branches of it and how much better would our healthcare system would be if there was more of that vision [by] welcoming each person in his or her individuality and rooting for him or her right from the get go. 

“Our health service would be much better if there was more of that spirit around,” the Senator said during the Order of Business. 

While Prof Malone insisted that the hospital, which is one of the busiest maternity centres in Europe, does not advocate for abortion, he is in favour of scrapping the three day wait for women wanting to proceed with an abortion. In 2018, voters were promised that the 3-day period would be part of “strict guidelines” around the operation of the Abortion Act. Back in 2018, then Tánaiste Simon Coveney said that these “strict guidelines” were crucial in persuading what he dubbed “middle ground” voters who had a “traditionally pro-life” perspective to support a repeal vote. 

However, now Prof Malone and others have become advocates of removing the three-day wait. The master of the Rotunda, speaking to the Irish Times last month, described the requirement as “paternalistic”.

“I don’t think I can come up with any other example of healthcare – not transplantation or cancer surgery, for example – where we require someone to go through an informed consent process with a doctor and is then required to go away and come back in three days to reaffirm their consent,” he told the paper.

Figures, however, have shown that about 5,000 women who had initial consultations regarding an abortion with a GP over a three-year period did not proceed with having an abortion. Prof Malone has claimed that miscarriage is the most likely explanation for many of these cases – rather than a change of mind. However, pro-life organisation The Life Institute have highlighted how at least 1,000 women have changed their mind on abortion owing to the three-day wait. 

The group says that data suggests the scrapping of the period of reflection may bring about another sharp rise in the abortion rate. The group insists that keeping the 3-day wait will “help women choose life”. A recent billboard campaign from the Life Institute calling for the waiting period to be retained came on the back of data released to TDs Carol Nolan and Peadar Tóibín last year, which suggested that an average of 1,000 women every year changed their mind during the 3-day period between the first visit to a GP and returning to procure abortion pills. 

Parents of children with Down syndrome have been among those to challenge the Rotunda on the message it is sending out to parents following the claim that 95% of babies with Down Syndrome in the hospital were aborted. 

Michael O’Dowd of Disability Voices for Life, whose son Conor, a photographer and chef, has Down Syndrome, spoke out last month.

“I believe this is a governance issue for the Rotunda. A 95% rate of abortions suggests that information being given to prospective parents may be skewed towards highlighting potential medical problems, ignoring the positive aspects of having a child with Down syndrome,” he said.

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