At least 40 GPs walk out of meeting on abortion services

Doctors have concerns over issue of conscientious objection and workload on others

 Minister for Health Simon Harris says in the context of abortion services a ‘conscientious objection is that you don’t have to be involved in a procedure’. Photograph: Collins

Minister for Health Simon Harris says in the context of abortion services a ‘conscientious objection is that you don’t have to be involved in a procedure’. Photograph: Collins

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At least 40 GPs have walked out of an extraordinary general meeting of the Irish College of General Practitioners over the issue of conscientious objection to the provision of abortion services.

The doctors left the meeting on Sunday, held to discuss issues relating to the provision of abortion services as planned by the Government from next month, after about half an hour. The Government is introducing the service following the repeal of the Eighth Amendment after May’s referendum.

More than 300 doctors attended the start of the meeting in Malahide, which continued for three hours.

Minister for Health Simon Harris plans to introduce a GP-led abortion service for terminations under nine weeks from January 2019, once the legislation is passed in the Dáil.

About 300 GPs have said they will provide the service but hundreds more have indicated they will not and have pressured the ICGP to discuss the issue.

The ICGP expressed disappointment at the decision of some members to walk out after objecting to the official procedure for the meeting.

It said those doctors who remained heard a “meaningful debate” on the provision of termination of pregnancy services by GPs, with a range of views expressed.

Concerns

“We are aware of the concerns of those with a conscientious objection to providing termination of pregnancy services, and we have successfully advocated for an “opt-in” service and for a 24-hour helpline as the first point of information for those who seek the service,” said Dr Tony Cox, medical director of the ICGP.

The group who walked out claimed several hundred GPs have lost confidence in the board of the ICGP and that a “serious crisis now exists that the Government cannot ignore regarding the rollout of GP-led abortion services”.

The group said it walked out after the board ruled out any debate or votes on motions submitted by members and replaced them with discussion topics that “sidestepped” the main issues.

“Today was a test for whether the ICGP board regard rank and file GPs as colleagues who ought to be consulted and included in decision making or see them as a problem that must be managed. We definitely got our answer to that question at today’s meeting,” said Dr Kirsten Fuller, spokeswoman for the group.

Protections

Another of the doctors who left the meeting, Dr Niall Maguire, said GPs who were opposed to abortion felt exposed by the lack of existing protections for conscientious objection.

Under existing Medical Council ethical guidelines, a GP would have to make arrangements for the care of a woman patient even when the doctor felt the procedure involved was not the correct one, he said.

That might be “fair enough” for genetic testing or the morning after pill, according to Dr Maguire. “But when this is extended to abortion and the killing of an unborn human, we need much stronger protection than that, and we feel our College should be making that argument for us.”

As a result, GPs would feel “exposed” after abortion was introduced from January 1st.

Weeks of wrangling over procedural issues preceded Sunday’s meeting. Although the ICGP eventually agreed to hold an egm, there were no motions on the agenda. The group that left the meeting is expected now to seek a second egm at which motions on conscientious objection would be tabled.

‘Cold shoulder’

Earlier, Minister for Health Simon Harris said while doctors would continue to have the right to opt out if they did not want to provide abortion services, this did not mean they could “give women the cold shoulder”.

Speaking to Newstalk FM, Mr Harris said GPs were entitled to the right of conscientious objection but added they must refer patients on to colleagues willing to carry out the procedure. “The law on abortion is changing; the law on conscientious objection is not changing,” he said.

“If you are saying to me that a woman who goes to her GP in crisis; looking for help and looking for a service that is legally available in our country and that that woman should be shown the door or given the cold shoulder that is not conscientious objection.

“Conscientious objection is that you don’t have to be involved in a procedure.”

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