The prospect of women being able to access abortion services in Ireland in just four weeks’ time is looking increasingly uncertain following the escalation of a row between family doctors and their training body — and the snail’s pace at which the proposed legislation is moving through the Dáil.
An extraordinary general meeting of the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) held at the behest of members was thrown into disarray yesterday when dozens of doctors walked out in protest that their views were not being taken onboard ahead of the January 1 deadline for the introduction of abortion.
While the college put the number of dissenters at 50, Killarney-based GP Dr Andrew O’Regan, who is Pro Life, said about one third of the group of more than 300 walked out when the board of the ICGP “refused to accept members’ motions from the floor”.
He said the dissenters were “not just the Pro Life troublemakers” and conscientious objectors, but also included Pro Choice doctors.
They had been “absolutely disrespected” by the board, he said. Another member of the group, Dr Kirsten Fuller, claimed “several hundred GPs have totally lost confidence in the ICGP board”, adding
“a serious crisis now exists that the Government cannot ignore regarding the roll-out of GP-led abortion services”.
Dr Susan Smyth, an ICGP board member, said they were “disappointed” by the walk-out, and that “we would have hoped they would stay to express their views”.
She said remaining members raised a range of concerns about the proposed abortion service, including seeking assurances that GPs would have the choice of “opting-in”. There was also considerable concern that general practice did not have the ability to deliver a new service at a time when GPs were feeling under- resourced and overwhelmed.
“Other GPs felt general practice was not the right setting and that there should be separate clinics,” Dr Smyth said. Doctors were also looking for reassurance that ancillary arrangements would be in place in time, including a promised 24-hour medically-staffed helpline to direct women to where they could get a service, and access to ultrasound where dates needed to be confirmed.
Dr Smyth said an online consultation process conducted by the ICGP indicated enough members would sign up to allow an abortion service to operate but until contracts were signed, “we don’t know how many”.
Health Minister Simon Harris said responses from GPs on expressions of interest were due back “I think this week”. In an interview with Newstalk yesterday, the minister called on TDs to “move beyond rehearsed positions” in order to meet the proposed January 1 deadline.
The deadline “is entirely doable” he said, but needed the co-operation of all parties. For example, People Before Profit was co-operating and withdrew a motion from private members’ time this week to give more time to debate the proposed abortion legislation.
However, Fianna Fáil was pressing ahead with a motion on promoting cycling, he said.
“It’s an important issue but it’s not as important as women’s reproductive rights.
“There’s an onus on party leaders to give all of their time next week in the Dáil to get this legislation through and not to be saying in public ‘we want it through’ and then saying in private ‘we are not giving you our Dáil time’. It’s hypocritical,” Mr Harris said.
Opposition to the proposed legislation is not confined to the Dáil. In recent days, a number of health groupings, including Pharmacists for Human Rights, Nurses & Midwives4Life Ireland, and several hundred GPs, have expressed their opposition to the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018. GPs have the choice of “opting in” but Pharmacists for Human Rights want an opt-in system for all aspects of an abortion service.
Mr Harris said he defended the right to conscientious objection to abortion, but that it “cannot mean some doctors who campaigned for a ‘no’ vote would endeavour to obstruct a service, because we live in a democracy and people voted in overwhelming numbers to provide this”.
“I just can’t fathom a situation where someone in crisis, perhaps even a rape victim, sits before a doctor and says ‘I need help’ and they are shown the door,” Mr Harris said.