Maria Steen of The Iona Institute and pro-choice campaigner, Dr Peter Boylan, had a high-profile, much-commented on clash when they appeared on RTE’s Clare Byrne Live a couple of weeks before last year’s abortion referendum.
In his recent book ‘In the Shadow of the Eighth’, Dr Boylan gives his account of the campaign and the long lead-up to it. He challenges Maria on something she said to him during their debate. But Maria was correct then in what she said, and she is correct now. It involves a section of our abortion law which permits abortion, meaning the termination of the life of the child, beyond the point of viability outside the womb.
In chapter 17 of his book, Dr Boylan writes: “Maria Steen brandished a copy of the legislation and claimed that there was no protection for babies who had reached viability. This is untrue”. (p. 218)
And also: “Of all panelists, Maria Steen had had a most assured performance, even if it was a consequence of misrepresenting the proposed legislation.” (p. 220)
Here are two clips and a transcript from that debate.
Peter Boylan: “When viability is reached, the baby will be treated by neonatal doctors.”
Maria Steen: “Peter, show me where in the Bill it says ‘early delivery’”
Peter Boylan: “No, now stop …. I am not taking a lecture on medical practice from Maria Steen”.
Maria, of course, was not commenting on medicine, she was commenting on the legislation, and Maria is a trained barrister.
The issue at stake was whether or not, in certain circumstances, our abortion law will permit the termination of a pregnancy past the point of foetal viability only by safely delivering the baby, or whether it also permits deliberately ending its life past that point. Dr Boylan insisted the law would end the pregnancy by delivery once the baby could live outside the womb. Maria correctly said the pregnancy could also be ended by terminating the life of the baby.
A bit later in the programme, Peter Boylan says: “In the proposed legislation, in any pregnancy that reaches viability the baby will be delivered, and that’s what we do at the moment, and that would be a premature delivery” (He is interrupted).
Claire Byrne: “Ok, people in the audience say the proposed legislation does not say that”.
Peter Boylan: “That is what is in … that is in the proposed legislation … is in the Government.”
Maria Steen: “If I can come in, please. As I am the only lawyer on the panel. Point it to me, which head of the bill says that?”
Peter Boylan: “It is not in the head of the bill.”
But our abortion law does permit abortion past the point of viability. The law is called ‘Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018’. Crucially, it defines a termination of pregnancy as follows: “in relation to a pregnant woman, means a medical procedure which is intended to end the life of a foetus”.
Section 9 of the Act, called ‘Risk to Life or Health’, says a termination cannot be performed once the baby has reached viability.
But the following section, Section 10, called ‘Risk to Life or Health in Emergency’, makes no mention of viability. It authorises a termination of pregnancy at any point where there is an ‘emergency’. Bear in mind again the definition of ‘termination’ quoted above. It means ending the life of the baby, not delivering it.
So, in their clash on this point, on the point of law, Maria was correct, and Dr Boylan was not. Dr Boylan needs to amend his book.