Just 10% of GPs are delivering abortion services amid 'fear of prosecution'

Just 10% of GPs are delivering abortion services amid 'fear of prosecution'

National Women’s Council of Ireland director Orla O'Connor explained that half of Irish counties have less than 10 GDs offering abortion services. Picture: Leon Farrell/Photocall

Just 10% of GPs are delivering abortion services as the threat of criminal sanctions hangs over those offering the service, the Oireachtas health committee has been told. The fear of prosecution “sits in the consultation room between a patient and doctor”, according to the Irish Family Planning Association’s (IFPA), policy and research officer Alison Spillane.

The National Women’s Council presented data to the committee showing a type of postcode lottery for services with good accessibility highlighted in Cork, Galway, Wicklow, and Dublin only.

The council’s director Orla O’Connor said only one in 10 GPs provide abortion services while just 7% are registered with the HSE’s My Options information service.

“Data shared with The National Women’s Council by the HSE in March 2022, shows that half of counties have less than 10 GPs offering [abortion] services currently. In some counties it could be as low as one GP per county as the data was provided in a 0-10 range rather than the total number.”

'When you’re looking at cases around foetal anomaly or risk to health, the potential of criminalisation hangs over medical practitioners,' said Alison Spillane, policy and research officer with the Irish Family Planning Association. File picture
'When you’re looking at cases around foetal anomaly or risk to health, the potential of criminalisation hangs over medical practitioners,' said Alison Spillane, policy and research officer with the Irish Family Planning Association. File picture

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane described this as shocking while People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith said 90% of medics not providing basic healthcare “really jumps out at you”.

There is a three-day waiting period and abortions can be performed up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Ms Spillane said: 

Right now, the fact that the 2018 Act is a criminal statute means it sits in the consultation room between a patient and a doctor in a very negative way. 

"Further along when you’re looking at cases around foetal anomaly or risk to health, the potential of criminalisation hangs over medical practitioners.”

Ms O’Connor told Fine Gael health spokesperson Colm Burke that one clause is “very problematic” and has caused “huge heartbreak”. That stipulates that around fatal foetal anomalies doctors must be sure the baby will die within 28 days.

The committee heard only 10 of the 19 maternity hospitals provide abortion services. IFPA medical director Dr Caitriona Henchion, said GPs do not feel safe offering medical abortions if the nearest hospital does not.

Speaking after the hearing, Dr Trish Horgan from the Southern Taskforce On Abortion and Reproductive Topics said legal fears are a real issue. “It is probably the only consultation I’ll have with my patients on a day-to- day basis where I’ll have to talk about the law and what the law says. That does definitely have a chilling effect, particularly for new providers,” the Cork GP said.

Hospital support is lacking in some counties, she said.

“GPs who are considering commencing service would be reluctant to do that if they don’t have surety of local hospital support. We don’t want to leave anyone behind. These are the issues we need to iron out to get everyone in the net so no one loses out on a service they are legally entitled to,” she said.

In 2020, 6,577 abortions were carried out and 194 women gave Irish addresses to UK abortion providers.

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