There is something especially powerful about a prophetic voice speaking from beyond the grave. Amid the large volume of correspondence released with the 1983 state papers was a letter from Dr Fergus Meehan, an obstetrician at University Hospital Galway, to then taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald warning him about the likely consequences of the “pro-life” amendment.
One can’t called them “unforeseen” consequences because Dr Meehan, who described himself as Catholic and anti-abortion, spelt them out in great detail – pinpointing the risk to human life of introducing a constitutional ban on abortion that would tie the hands of treating doctors.
Identifying a hypothetical case with echoes of Savita Halappanavar’s, Dr Meehan warned that if the amendment was passed a pregnant woman undergoing life-threatening complications might die in hospital because a doctor “would rather wait until the foetal heart has disappeared”. His letter is reproduced in full here.
Perhaps social historians will give him some credit: a wise counsel to whom we failed to listen.
Dr Meehan’s request to meet Dr Fitzgerald to discuss his concerns was denied. The obstetrician died in 1991. The referendum was passed by the electorate by a 2:1 majority. In October 2012, Savita Halappanavar died at University Hospital Galway, the institution where Dr Meehan worked. A jury at the inquest into her death returned a verdict of medical misadventure.
Joe Humphreys – Friday, January 3rd
For more on the history of the 1983 pro-life referendum, as illuminated by declassified state papers, see: