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Did no alarm bell tinkle from RTÉ's editorial structures about its programme on abortion services?

A recent programme about Ireland’s abortion services reminds us there are other systemic flaws at the broadcaster beyond financial mismanagement

Way back at the end of the last century, I was wondering whether to continue with the insecure, six-month researcher contracts I was getting from RTÉ. A kindly senior researcher told me that I had no future in RTÉ as I would never be considered a safe pair of hands because of my anti-abortion views. I remembered that conversation while watching the RTÉ Investigates programme on Ireland’s abortion services broadcast last Monday.

There was not a single contribution from anyone, pro-choice or pro-life, who had doubts about the wisdom of expanding Irish abortion access. What would the programme have been like with this pair of “unsafe hands” at the helm?

I would have included the programme’s personal testimonies, such as a young woman with an unsuccessful medical abortion who then could not access Irish abortion as she was well past 12 weeks. However, I would also have interviewed women who changed their minds about aborting during the three-day waiting period. I would have included the grieving mothers who felt it was in the best interests of their child to end the pregnancy in Britain when they received a devastating diagnosis that would not necessarily result in death within 28 days after birth. But I would also have featured mothers I have interviewed previously who continued their pregnancies in Ireland and received the best of bereavement care.

I would not have sent two undercover researchers for two days to secretly film a religious retreat run by Rachel’s Vineyard. As the programme made clear, there was no suggestion of any participant being coerced or of any criminal activity. The problem seemed to be that they were run by women at variance with the current prevailing orthodoxy that there is nothing to regret about abortion.


Invading the privacy of the women running the retreat as they dealt with trauma and loss, with no public service justification, and allowing other contributors to describe their activities as akin to “voodoo” and a “cult” – no, I would not have done that. Did not even a tiny alarm bell tinkle from RTÉ's robust editorial structures?

Dr Jonathan Lord, who was interviewed in the programme, is the medical director of MSI, one of the biggest UK abortion providers. He joined MSI in February 2020, after it had been through a series of controversies. Marie Stopes temporarily ceased some operations in 2016 because of damning Care Quality Commission (CQC) reports. Previously there was the case of Aisha Chithira who travelled from Ireland in 2012 for a late-stage abortion and later died, after Marie Stopes staff put her into a taxi following the procedure, despite obvious signs of unwellness stemming from a tear to her uterus. A coroner later identified an “element of complacency” within the west London clinic, but said he could not return a verdict of neglect because he was not satisfied there had been a gross failure.

In 2016, CQC found that there was a “cattle market” approach in Maidstone MSI. Staff were encouraged to approach people who had not shown up for abortions to offer them another appointment. This was linked to performance bonuses. MSI’s CQC reports have improved greatly since Lord joined. Nonetheless, I would have made his role at MSI clear and balanced him with an experienced Irish obstetrician with different views.

The programme focused on what it called rogue counselling agencies, but ignored what appeared to be an egregious promotion of abortion by the HSE My Options helpline recorded in their own programme. A woman calls My Options, says that she is about 14 weeks pregnant, never mentions abortion in the clip used in the programme, but is told that she is too late for an Irish abortion but that a voluntary group can help her go to the UK. Viewers see no evidence of counselling, no questions about exploring other options – which would be a clear breach of My Options’ mandate to nondirectively explore all options, including parenting. I would have investigated that further.

I would have asked Dr Marie O’Shea why when preparing her Report on the Operation of the 2018 Abortion Legislation, neither she nor her researchers spoke to a single woman who regretted her abortion choice, or who did not proceed to abortion. I would have asked about the woman in Limerick who almost died from an ectopic pregnancy after being prescribed abortion medicine and what safeguards should be put in place to prevent coercive abortions. Figures outlining claims for fees from GPs for second abortion visits from January to November 2023 indicate that there were probably 10,000 Irish abortions in that period. Why have the figures risen so dramatically since legalisation?

In response to a series of questions, RTÉ said that the documentary “was not about looking at the rights or wrongs of abortion but rather examines the Government commissioned review of Ireland’s abortion legislation published early last year” and that the broadcaster “does not comment on individual editorial decisions. The programme was produced in accordance with RTÉ's journalism guidelines and extensive editorial processes”.

Just when you begin to feel sympathy for RTÉ's workforce suffering from egregious financial mismanagement that was not of their doing, they manage to remind us that there are other systemic organisational flaws that there is little appetite to redress.