Abortion hospitals lacked staff and resources

John Higgins said providing abortion will be challenging.

Hospitals in the south of the country were still awaiting “the promised staffing and resources” needed to provide abortion a day before the service was introduced.

A memo from John Higgins, clinical director of the maternity directorate of the South/Southwest hospital group (SSWHG), to all staff on December 31, outlined the group’s position regarding the provision of the service.

It reads: “While we currently await the promised staffing and resources we intend to provide the following services [outlined below] from the 1 January 2019.”

The Irish Examiner understands that a number of referrals have been made to Cork University Maternity Hospital’s (CUMH) abortion service since January 1.

A source said that the issues affecting the service include too few providers; where to carry out termination of pregnancy (TOP); and the involvement of other staff.

The service, as outlined in the memo, is currently not in a position to provide elective surgical terminations. The source said this is likely to be short-term and will be resolved.

The service does include termination of pregnancy where there is risk to the life, or of serious harm to the health, of the pregnant woman, as per the new abortion legislation. It includes “emergency support for any woman with a complication from a TOP”.

The memo says TOP will also be provided in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities.

CUMH and University Hospital Waterford are named as the two hospitals that will provide medical terminations at 9-12 weeks, with referral pathways from University Hospital Kerry (UHK) and South Tipperary General Hospital (STGH).

Prof Higgins said that all four maternity units are to provide viability scans to women requesting them and all units are to provide a telephone number “specifically for TOP enquiries by the public”, at 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday.

He said the directorate “will ensure that conscientious objection is respected”.

Prof Higgins acknowledged that providing abortion will be challenging.

“The introduction of medical termination will undoubtedly be a challenge for our directorate, as we have not provided this service before,” he wrote. “One can anticipate that it will start slowly and that we will build it up as we gain experience and additional resources become available.”

Prof Higgins was previously asked by doctors across Munster to clarify referral pathways for women seeking terminations.

The HSE was unable to provide national figures yesterday for the number of referrals to maternity hospitals that have taken place since the new service was introduced. The HSE was also unable to say how many calls had been made to the MyOptions helpline.

It was, however, able to update the number of GPs who have signed up to a TOP contract, from 217 to 224.

Nine maternity units are currently providing an abortion service. In addition to CUMH and UHW, a service is also being provided at the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street; Midland Regional Hospital, Mullingar; Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda; University Hospital Galway, Mayo University Hospital, Castlebar; and University Maternity Hospital Limerick.

The HSE said it is “expected that other hospitals will begin to provide abortion care in the near future”.

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