Playing Politics with Medicine: Alasdair’s Abortion Intervention

The recent comments by the SDLP Leader over the issue of Abortion has caused a stir. Analysing his comments Ulster University academic, Dr. Cillian McGrattan argues that he is playing politics with medicine.

The latest of the series of embarrassing PR-disasters that have characterised his tenure as SDLP leader, Alasdair McDonnell’s ostensible defence of his party’s abortion policy has managed to plumb a new low in what is otherwise an intensely emotionally sensitive debate.

In order to avoid misinterpretation of someone who seems to endure a daily Prescottesque battle with the English language it’s worth quoting McDonnell at length.

Thus, speaking at the weekend about cases of lethal foetal abnormality, McDonnell asserted that ‘The SDLP is unequivocally opposed to abortion, even in those particular circumstances because basically, the predictions in those circumstances are never accurate. Nobody can predict that a foetus is not viable, and that’s the problem, and as a GP, I’m fully aware’.

While it remains uncertain as to exactly what McDonnell is ‘fully aware’, his medical opinion was denounced as ‘worrying, unhelpful and disingenuous’ by Breedagh Hughes from the Royal College of Midwives in Northern Ireland. ‘I think he is going back a number of years ago when he was practising as a GP’, she explained. ‘It is very sophisticated now and highly accurate’.

Janice Smyth, the director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, also challenged McDonnell’s claims: ‘Dr McDonnell may have information that we don’t have but certainly the RCN has no information that would suggest that doctors diagnosing fatal abnormality have been getting it wrong’.

McDonnell’s anecdotal approach (‘I have seen situations…’) has insidious implications that extend beyond disputes over evidence and medical methodology.

By claiming authority based on his position as a GP in order to defend a party policy, McDonnell is playing on our trust in doctors. By seemingly getting the medical and evidential call so wrong he achieves something that is arguably beyond ‘totally irresponsible’ (to quote Audrey Simpson from the Family Planning Association). What McDonnell is doing is simply wrong from both a medical and an ethical position.

He is of course free to air his views on abortion or any other matter – the problem arises when he takes on the guise of a medical expert to reinforce a moral and a political judgment. In so doing, he tarnishes medicine, morality and political transparency with the same cynical taint.

Ultimately, McDonnell then appears to speak neither from morality nor medicine. He uses, instead, what Orwell termed ‘political language’ – namely, that which ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’.

McDonnell’s clumsy attempt to offer medical experience as policy reveals that he is unable even to use political language to give a semblance of solidity. His framing not only toys with our faith in medical professionals but demonstrates that his condescension towards women and women’s bodies stems from a general arrogance.