‘Not fair to ask obstetricians about abortion’

Obstetricians “do not need to be in the vanguard” of the debate around repealing the Eight Amendment, according to the new clinical director for maternity services in the South/South West Hospital Group (SSWHG).

John Higgins, who takes up his role on Monday, said he believes “a mistake has been made in the past where obstetricians were in the vanguard on both sides of this debate”.

“Asking obstetricians to contribute to the debate regardless of what their views are — I don’t think it’s fair,” said Prof Higgins. “I don’t think it’s required either. I think obstetricians have good insights but they shouldn’t be the arbiters on a constitutional situation.”

From his own viewpoint he said: “I think we will practice within the law and provide services within the law.”

Prof Higgins, a consultant obstetrician/gynaecologist at Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH), said he had been invited to address the Citizen’s Assembly on repealing the Eighth — which apportions the right to life to the mother and the unborn equally — precisely because he had not spoken publicly on the issue.

“So my attitude is that these are very fundamental decisions for society to decide,” he said. “My main concern is that people take time, think about it very carefully and that we allow a range of voices to be heard before a decision is made.”

Prof Higgins will preside over four maternity units in Cork, Kerry, Waterford, and Tipperary.

His post marks two firsts for the HSE — the first clinical director in charge of maternity services across a hospital group, and the first clinical director to also have executive authority in the HSE system, including making budgetary decisions, “and that’s what makes it different and new”, Prof Higgins said.

His appointment comes at a time when relations have soured between consultants at CUMH and hospital management over chronic underinvestment in gynaecology services.

With more than 4,200 women awaiting outpatient appointments, doctors have warned they will no longer be responsible for adverse outcomes of women on their waiting lists.

Last month, Health Minister Simon Harris intervened and asked consultants to come up with a plan to tackle the waiting lists.

Prof Higgins said his “number one priority” in his new post is “to ensure additional resources to deliver additional capacity for gynaecology services”.

However, it would take a “number of years” to get on top of the waiting list issue.

His second priority would be to improve access to foetal anomaly scans. Currently less than half the women attending CUMH can access the 20-week scan.

READ MORE: John Higgins ready to deliver as first clinical director of maternity services at CUMH

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