No opt-out for religious if abortion laws liberalised

Public hospitals will be obliged to provide abortion services if they are legalised here, regardless of their religious ethos, the HSE and the Minister for Health have both said.

They were responding to comments by Peter Boylan, former master of the National Maternity Hospital, that some hospitals with a Catholic ethos might try to opt out if next year’s planned referendum and any subsequent legislation paves the way for terminations to be performed here.

Health Minister Simon Harris described Dr Boylan’s testimony to the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment as “very powerful” but he was in no doubt about the duties of hospitals.

“I believe that if the Irish people make a decision to make a health service available then that should be available in the public health service,” he said.

He said there was also a view in advance of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act that some hospitals would not provide terminations even in the very limited circumstances provided for in that law but he said there was no evidence of this to date.

“Hospitals in this country operate under the law of the land,” he said. “Hospitals in this country are funded to operate under the law of the land and to deliver our public health services.”

That view was echoed by Peter McKenna, clinical director of the HSE’s National Women and Infant Health Programme, who said the HSE would respond with the services required to meet any changes that may result from the referendum.

“Our role then would be to implement whatever the law of the land is, as safely as possible,” said Dr McKenna. “We don’t have a role in influencing what that law will be and we wouldn’t have an opinion on that because we are here purely to implement, as an arm of the State, what the State decides to be legal.”

He said, however, that it was too soon to plan for providing abortion clinics or other facilities.

“We will have to see first of all what the question is [in the referendum] and then what the answer is and then design a State service around that,” he said.

The doctors were speaking at the publication of the long-awaited implementation plan for the National Maternity Strategy, which was published in January 2016.

Under the as-yet uncosted strategy, an extra 100 midwives have been hired and the recruitment of 100 obstetricians is being targetted over 10 years, along with additional sonographers to perform ultrasound scans and other specialist staff including experts in addiction counselling, perinatal psychiatry, breastfeeding support, and investigation of infant and maternal deaths and other adverse incidents.

Mr Harris said confidence in the country’s maternity services had been rocked by a succession of deaths and other incidents and he said his thoughts were with those families whose tragic experiences had helped shape the strategy.

“It is as a result of their experiences that we have said as a country and as a health service that we want to do better, we must do better, we will do better,” he said.

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