The problems lie with our abortion regime, not those protesting about it

This article is written in response to a Journal.ie article of 12th August (GP: My patients do not need to see your placards with your value judgements (thejournal.ie)). The author of that article was Dr Brian Kennedy of the organisation START, consisting of GP’s who provide abortions under the new abortion regime. (START =Southern Task Force on Abortion and Reproductive Topics. A very strange acronym, given what its members actually do. Surely STOP would be more appropriate – Supporting Termination of Pregnancy?)

Dr Kennedy makes the point that people attend his surgery for all sorts of reasons, and that abortion protests in the vicinity of a GP surgery are singularly inappropriate for this reason. He portrays his practice as one which caters for all, and gives compassionate care to all, and I have no doubt that this is true (apart from the aborted babies, of course).

But he will never understand the abortion protesters if he persists in regarding abortion as just another medical procedure, because clearly it is not. It is the deliberate destruction of a human life. That is the only certainty after a successful abortion – a human life has been taken. The mother may be secure in her abortion decision, or she may be conflicted. She may subsequently express relief and gratitude, or she may experience guilt and regret.

She may experience little or no physical side effects, or she may be one of the 8% of women (about 500 women a year) who are referred on to hospitals after taking the prescribed abortion pills. She may be unaffected mentally, or she may experience subsequent severe mental distress. No one knows beforehand, in any individual case. The one thing that is certain is that the baby no longer exists. No amount of harking back to the sins of the past (something Dr Kennedy does at some length in his article) can alter that fact or justify it.

The abortion protesters usually behave impeccably, often in fact prayerfully; there have been no prosecutions for interference or intimidation. One pro-choice doctor in 2019 had this to say about them to the Irish Times: “I expected more. Mostly it’s been a lot of old men and women, wizened old feckers reciting the rosary outside surgeries”. The Irish Examiner recently reported: “Camilla Fitzsimons of NUI Maynooth, who is involved in a questionnaire of healthcare workers to establish the extent of anti-abortion protests nationwide, said she has received reports of demonstrators praying loudly, holding up graphic placards, and distributing leaflets outside healthcare facilities.” Praying, placards, leaflets? These are hardly serious examples of intimidatory behaviour.

But even if a few protesters are indeed harsh and obnoxious, their central point is still correct. Providing this abortion service is not something that doctors should be doing. A doctor’s mission is to save lives, not end them.

As the Oireachtas abortion review approaches, pro-choice advocates seem to be united in their view that one of the most important things is to outlaw these protests near clinics. Dr Kennedy is among the latest to take this line, in what is beginning to look like an organised PR campaign. Are they not aware that the Garda Commissioner has gone on record as stating that there is no need for further legislation in this area, and are they not aware too of the constitutional difficulties such legislation would face?

There are more important issues than protestors. There is no provision in the 2018 legislation, or in the arrangements put in place subsequently, for abortion counselling. There is no requirement for doctors to be trained in counselling. If Dr Kennedy looks at neighbouring Irish counties, he will see substantial variation in abortion rates. This variation might be due to different numbers of women changing their minds about abortion in these counties, and this in turn may be due to different approaches to counselling being adopted by different GP’s. Protesters near abortion centres offer to provide women with alternatives to abortion; that, in fact, is the main reason most of the protesters are there, to offer women this support. Can Dr Kennedy say, hand on heart, that every GP member of START also offers this alternative?

Dr Kennedy does not mention the 3-day reflection period. There is concrete evidence from several sources, including a survey of the START organisation to which Dr Kennedy belongs, that between 1 in 8 and 1 in 7 women change their minds about abortion. They book an initial consultation with the abortion provider but do not proceed further. The National Women’s Council of Ireland wants to eliminate the 3-day reflection period that makes this change of mind possible. Doing that would increase the abortion numbers by close to 1000 a year, based on 2019 abortion data. It would also make us different from seventeen other European countries, some with very liberal abortion regimes, which continue to have a mandatory reflection period.

The current abortion regime is certainly a bit of a mess, but not because of anything to do with legitimate protests. People who were led to believe that abortion would be “rare” here need to be informed that we averaged 550 abortions a month here in 2019, and that this rose to nearly 640 a month in the first four months of 2020 (before Covid restrictions kicked in and affected abortion numbers). The vital role of the 3-day reflection period needs to be emphasised. Counselling should be mandatory. People need to hear about the ridiculous payment system to GP’s that pays them far more for abortions than for births. Pain relief should be mandatory for surgical abortions.

Dr Kennedy fails to address any of these issues. Will these problems go away if the protesters go away?

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