Following the weekend controversy over Senator Ronan Mullen’s alleged behaviour during and after a meeting with women who had their pregnancies terminated (following diagnoses of abnormalities “incompatible with life”), James Burke spoke with Jonathan Healy on today’s Lunchtime show on Newstalk.
James’ wife Amanda Mellet was 21 weeks pregnant when her baby was diagnosed with Edwards Syndrome. This is an abnormality caused by the presence of three, instead of two, copies of chromosome 18. it also causes congenital heart defects. A child with Edwards syndrome is likely to die after birth if not in the womb. James and Amanda travelled to Liverpool for a termination on December 2.
Jonathan Healy: “So let’s go to the Oireachtas last Wednesday. Yourself and a number of other couples went in to talk about your experiences before the Oireachtas committee. First of all, why did you do that. And second of all, what was the reaction of those inside that room?”
James: “Well, that was something that just kind of you know happened, really, you know? I mean we’ve been living our lives and trying to get on with this and..we were told that the Irish Times wanted to do a story that we, to meet with TDs. Now we knew this Bill was being debated on the Wednesday evening, that Clare Daly, and a few Independent TDs, had brought forward. We knew about that. So it was actually a..sorry..can I just take a sec…[starts coughing] I just got choked up there a little bit.
Jonathan: “That’s all right. So pick up from where you knew you were going in there, you knew Clare Daly’s Bill was being debated.”
James: “Yeah. So we didn’t realise it was going to be such a big story on Tuesday, we didn’t know it was going to be on the front page. So we were going along, just to tell our stories. Because we feel there are people who may think that we should have carried through with the whole pregnancy and given birth to Aoife in a natural way and so forth. We have spoken to lots of families who when they hear our story, they go ‘Oh, yeah you’ve done the right thing’ even though they wouldn’t be pro-choice so much themselves, you know? So we wanted to get our word across to the TDs and Senators and it was in an AV room. I don’t think many people would be familiar with it. It’s in a classroom kind of lecture hall setting. So we were sitting at the front on a desk and then there was, you know, seats in front of us where everybody was coming in to hear the story. So we, it was chaired by the [National] Women’s Council of Ireland, introduced it, and then we pretty much all told our stories.”
Jonathan: “We know from the Late Late Show on Friday night that the women who were there said the meeting was compassionate but one member of the Oireachtas had been extremely unpleasant. What can you, what can you tell us about that?”
James: “It’s complicated and I don’t want this to take away from the overall story of what we’ve gone through. But, well, the person in question I guess had spoken of a baby that he had known, it all sounded very vague, that survived after being diagnosed with Anecaphaly. And, it’s just medically that’s impossible. So it kind of, it upset us there. We keep having to come across this argument that ‘Oh there are cases that babies with Edwards Syndrome or Patau Syndrome or Anencphaly can survive’. And that’s medically impossible as far as we can tell. So it kind of, it upset people. And we felt it wasn’t, we weren’t there to defend ourselves. We weren’t there to give our view points. We just wanted to tell our stories and let people make up their own minds. We weren’t trying to push any agenda.”
Jonathan: “Are you willing to say who that member of the Oireachtas is, at this point?”
James: “Well I didn’t know at the time and actually one of the ladies on the Late Late Show actually thought it was a TD but it turns out it’s a Senator. And so…”
Jonathan: “Do you want to give his name? Are you…”
James: “I think it was Ronan Mullen was his name.”
Jonathan: “And what did he say? Did he interact with you personally at the end of all of this?”
James: “Yes. Well it’s…we all gave our stories and then…You see you’re at the front, you’re beside the door where everybody comes in and out when we’re sitting down at the desk at the front of the room. And there’s always people passing by and at the end of it a lot of people were in the room. There were Senators and TDs talking to us and asking us different stories so there were a lot of people coming up to us. And he was on his way out and he just kind of stopped and he said ‘well done for speaking’ or something. And then he said something like ‘well played’. And I kind of got this feeling he was, I got this feeling he was trying to make a debate out of it. And we weren’t trying to do that.”
Jonathan: “What did he mean by ‘well played’? That’s an unusual thing to say.”
James: “I don’t know. I really don’t know what he meant but we, we were..as I said, you know, I just thought he was trying to make a debate out of it. And we weren’t emotionally ready for that. Nor did we want that. So I just really, I don’t know what he meant really. I just don’t. So then I just, I shook his hand and I said ‘thanks for coming down’ and then he, he kinda said to me, as he was shaking my hand, ‘But you have a bigger agenda James, don’t you?’. And I just was shocked for a minute and Amanda heard this and she was beside me and I said ‘what?’ And he said ‘You’ve a bigger agenda, don’t you?’ And that’s when I said ‘look I don’t want to talk about this. You know? This is not the time or place. Would you mind just leaving?’ And he was on his way out anyway and he left and that’s all it was.”
Jonathan Healy: “Senator Mullen has gotten in contact with us. He is busy this afternoon [and] not in a position to come on the programme but he said he would be happy to talk to us tomorrow. Here is some of that statement. He goes on about how he actually ended up going late into that meeting, which is common enough. He said, not long after he arrived, a man at the top table, who was clearly from one of the families involved, invited anyone present to explain why abortion shouldn’t be allowed in that situation. After a moment of silence, Ronan Mullen said he tentatively offered his hand, he sympathised with the families, he offered his perspective and why he felt abortion was not the best response. At one point the same man, now we don’t whether this is Mr Burke who we were talking to earlier on, cause he doesn’t identify [who it was] in this statement. But at one point the same man, Ronan Mullen said, accused me of smirking while I was speaking. I was taken aback by this. It was absolutely untrue. I felt that it was a comment designed to portray me unsympathetically. I did however feel uncomfortable at that point with the atmosphere that had been generated in the room and I replied that I was probably grimacing. I invited the families present to be in touch with us individually for friendly and respectful dialogue, independently of their involvement with the Irish Family Planning Association and the National Women’s Council. He said he had concerns about the policies of both those organisations.”