Louise Kenny: On separating medical facts from religious dogma, and what needs to be done to secure a 'Yes'

PROFESSOR LOUISE KENNY, an obstetrician who’s witnessed first-hand the fatal consequences of the 8th Amendment, has emerged as one of the Repeal campaign’s most persuasive voices. She talks to STUART CLARK about dirty tricks, religious dogma dressed up as expert medical opinion, and what needs to be done to secure a ‘Yes’ vote on May 25.

“Repealers can call me Louise. You can call me Professor.”

That was Professor Louise Kenny putting manners on Save The 8th Comms Director, John McGuirk, in one of the many robust exchanges of abortion rights opinion she’s had recently on Twitter. Over the past few months the self-described “Mum, medic, academic and feminist” has become one of the Repeal movement’s most eloquent advocates and one who’s definitely not afraid to stand up to social media trolls.

“You can call me Louise,” the affable thirtysomething smiles. “I don’t think people in my line of work can really sit on the sidelines as it impacts us so blatantly in our work every day. I’ve had a little more room to get involved because I’m currently on a two-year career break. I’ve a very understanding boss at the HSE who basically said, ‘Do what you have to do…’ I’m glad I do have that freedom, because the extremely well-funded Save The 8th and associated campaigns are coming out with blatant lies. Some of the information they’re projecting is categorically wrong.”

Prior to becoming a Member of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists in 2001, Professor Kenny did her training at the Liverpool Medical School, where she saw first-hand the consequences of Irish women being forced to travel for terminations.

“I didn’t really give it much thought, but growing up as a child of Irish Catholic heritage, I was vaguely ‘pro-life’,” Louise reflects. “My attitude changed completely, though, when I started working in Liverpool and saw the amount of women coming through the hospital in the most desperate of situations. Because of the referendum, the number of women travelling from the North is kind of lost, but a lot of them were from Belfast.

“God knows how, but a pregnant 14-year-old, clearly a victim of rape, travelled over alone. She was so desperate to get out and get home that she left immediately after the procedure without telling anyone, and collapsed at the ferry port. She was brought back to the hospital and we were able to look after her. Seeing a child like that, alone in a foreign country, having a medical procedure like that haunted me. It was horrific.”

Professor Kenny declares herself to be in “fundamental agreement” with Dr. Peter Boylan, the former Holles Street master whose recent Hot Press interview elicited howls of protest from their anti-Repeal colleagues.

“To my mind, their ‘No’ stance isn’t based on medical documentation or research: it’s entirely religious,” she proffers. “I can say that objectively because I work in a high-risk situation, where my day job is not to provide termination of pregnancy. I’m all about preserving life and trying to get a baby into the world. Why I’m so fired up about the 8th is that it has unequivocally led to the death of women in Ireland. The Save The 8th campaign is, in typical bullying fashion, asking for a roll call of names but we’re bound by patient confidentiality. Ireland is a small country, so even saying I know of one person from ‘X’ who had ‘Y’ – they could be identifiable.

“What I can say is that I personally know of three women who’ve died because of the 8th Amendment. One woman committed suicide, but that was a direct result of lack of termination of pregnancy, which is slightly more complicated.”

One of the deceased that Professor Kenny can identify and talk about in detail is Michelle Harte, the 39-year-old woman from Ardamine in Co. Waterford, who travelled to Britain for an abortion when she was desperately ill with cancer.

“Yes, she gave a series of high-profile media interviews, which means I’m free to reference her case,” Louise explains. “Michelle is an English woman who’d been settled for many years in Ireland. She was presented with a very much unplanned and, in fact, complicated pregnancy. “In the first trimester of it, she was receiving treatment for malignant melanoma: she was on a new compound, under trial. An exclusion from that trial – because of international good clinical practice rather than anything to do with the hospital or drug company – was pregnancy. The only way Michelle would have been able to continue with the trial was by having a termination of pregnancy.

“I sought permission for this from the Cork University Maternity Ethics Committee, but they refused. They said we couldn’t because, in their opinion, coming off the trial was a risk to her health but not to her life. She was a single mum, who didn’t have a passport or the finances to immediately travel to the UK, which is expensive. During the weeks it took to arrange, she was off the drug, her cancer returned and she died shortly afterwards.”

Louise is decidedly unimpressed with the likes of the teenage pro-lifer who committed a criminal offence by passing herself off as a midwife whilst out canvassing, and the Save The 8th ‘abortion nurse’ who turned out to be a porter.

“If somebody has the qualifications that’s all well and good, but to misrepresent themselves like that is poor,” she notes. “I find it massively depressing that a campaign would allow people who don’t have the relevant credentials to present their opinions as fact.”

I’ve spoken to several undecideds whose veering towards ‘No’ ended as soon as those posters with foetuses on them started going up on lamp-posts.

“What I’d say to them is: ‘You can’t put up posters of a woman who’s lying in a hospital bed crying, often under the most awful circumstances. You can’t put up posters of the women I’ve cared for, whose lives have been wrecked by this amendment. You can’t put up posters of that 14-year-old girl, who was forced to travel to Liverpool alone after being raped. You can’t put up posters of a woman lying awake at night, knowing that she’s risking orphaning her kids for an unborn foetus. How do you summarise any of that on a poster?’”

With the latest opinion polls suggesting a rise in ‘No’ support, what does Louise think needs to be done by Repeal in these vital last few weeks to secure a ‘Yes’ vote?

“Facts matter,” she responds. “Twitter tends to represent the two extremes of the argument – I read the other day that only 13% of rural Ireland are on it – so you’ve physically got to get out there. Whilst campaigning on people’s doorsteps, I’ve had men and women who are undecided or leaning towards ‘No’ change their minds when you explain what retaining the 8th actually entails.

“I’ll have a conversation – and it needs to be a conversation rather than a lecture – with them and ask, ‘If it was your daughter, would you expect her to carry that child to full-term?’ They might be uncomfortable with the legislation that comes in. They might always be ‘pro-life’. They might never use termination for themselves. But they understand it’s not their right to prevent another Irish person going through with a life-saving procedure. I think that there are enough intrinsically compassionate people to secure a Yes vote. But we can’t take anything for granted.”

 

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