GPs seek clarity on abortion service provision

The association representing the bulk of the country’s GPs is holding an extraordinary general meeting tomorrow against a backdrop of no engagement with the Department of Health on how it plans to roll out a doctor-led abortion service.

The meeting of the National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP) in Portlaoise takes place as figures from Britain’s department of health show a decline in the number of women, resident in Ireland, travelling to the UK for abortions.

Details released yesterday show 3,092 women with Irish addresses underwent abortions in England and Wales in 2017, down 5% on the previous year, with the majority travelling to Manchester.

The figures contain clinic statistics for the first time and show the Marie Stopes clinic in Manchester is the number one choice of women resident in the Republic.

The figures also show the majority of the women (65%) were less than nine weeks pregnant and 2,943 (95%) sought an abortion on Ground C alone of the UK Abortion Act 1967, where the pregnancy has not exceeded its 24th week.

Among those who travelled were 10 girls under the age of 16. Almost 560 women previously had one or more abortions. A number of women sought abortions principally under Ground E which permits termination because of fetal abnormality at any gestation. Of those, 72 were classified as chromosomal abnormalities, of which 41 were Down syndrome.

The Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) said the latest abortion statistics from England and Wales show the proposed primary-care model for abortion services in Ireland “is practical and achievable”.

IFPA chief executive Niall Behan said the statistics show “only 0.2% of all women who have abortions require overnight care”.

However, Maitiú Ó Tuathail, president of the NAGP, said its members still had no clarity around how an abortion service would operate, two weeks after a referendum to legalise abortion had been passed. The doctor said he was receiving “a dozen calls a day” from GPs seeking clarity around:

  • How women considering abortion could avail of a counselling service given the limited national counselling service currently available. Dr Ó Tuathail said he rang the service on Wednesday and was told there was an eight-month waiting time;
  • How to avoid a situation where surgeries were targeted by protesters if it became known that a GP was providing an abortion service;
  • Whether a GP’s medical insurance would need to be extended to cover an abortion service;
  • How ultrasounds could be provided to assess gestation if women in the public health service already wait four to six months to access ultrasounds.

Dr Ó Tuathail said GPs were struggling to maintain existing services — there’s a three-day wait to see the GP at his own practice in Rathfarnham — with many unable to take on new patients. He said GPs did not envisage their own patients coming to them to request an abortion.

“Ireland is a very, very small country and I don’t see women going to their own GPs.”

Dr Ó Tuathail said the biggest issue for their 2,080 members was the desire for an “opt-in” rather than an “opt-out” service — the proposed legislation allows a GP to opt-out on grounds of conscientious objection.

The NAGP is currently polling members to see how many are likely to engage in providing an abortion service and results are due to be announced at tomorrow’s EGM.

A Department of Health spokesperson said it has held very productive meetings with the Royal College of Physicians, Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the Irish College of General Practitioners to discuss the service issues that will arise from legislation to regulate termination of pregnancy.

“It was agreed to continue this engagement over the period ahead. It is recognised that, separate to the engagement with doctors’ professional bodies, contractual discussions will also be required in due course in relation to the provision of services by GPs to GMS patients.”

News: 6

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