Conscientious objection: GP abortion meeting ‘bitter, chaotic, uncivil’

Dozens of doctors walked out of event claiming ‘serious crisis’ over abortion services

Attempts by ICGP chief executive Fintan Foy to speak at the meeting were repeatedly interrupted.

Attempts by ICGP chief executive Fintan Foy to speak at the meeting were repeatedly interrupted.

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Bitter, chaotic, uncivil and vitriolic are just some of the words used by doctors to describe the stormy extraordinary general meeting of the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) that took place behind closed doors on Sunday.

The meeting highlighted deep divisions within the medical profession on abortion (no less than in the rest of society) and on the specific issue of conscientious objection.

Dozens of mostly anti-abortion GPs walked out of the meeting – and into the lenses of waiting cameras – claiming a “serious crisis” exists about the rollout of abortion services by the Government’s planned start date of January 1st.

But what happened at the meeting also pointed to a wider disaffection among many family doctors with their treatment by the Government and by the ICGP, their professional and training body.

Difficult debate

And even among those who remained for three hours of often difficult debate after the walkout, it is clear few believe the January deadline is a realistic one.

The 300 or so doctors who attended the meeting roughly broke down into one-third pro-choice, one-third anti-abortion and one-third who “could have been either but were mostly just fed up with everything”, one doctor who attended the meeting summed it up for The Irish Times.

“It was an umbrella meeting for a lot of discontent,” said another doctor. “Many of those who spoke felt disrespected and manipulated by the Government.”

There was an air of menace in the room. A group of 40-50 pro-life doctors were clearly squaring up for a fight

Although it was an egm, no motions were on the agenda. From the start of the meeting, however, a number of speakers sought to have the agenda suspended so that five motions could be tabled.

One asserted that general practice was not the appropriate setting in which to deliver an abortion service – the Government’s plan is for a GP-led service for terminations up to nine weeks. Another motion said there should be no obligation on GPs to refer patients for a termination.

Amid chaotic scenes, attempts by ICGP chief executive Fintan Foy to speak were repeatedly interrupted and some members hurled abuse at other speakers, according to doctors who were present. The walkout occurred after the board informed the meeting that on legal advice the motions could not be taken.

“There was an air of menace in the room. A group of 40-50 pro-life doctors were clearly squaring up for a fight,” a doctor with pro-choice views told The Irish Times.

“It was a disappointing day and a bad one for general practice, but people conducted themselves in a dignified way,” said one anti-abortion doctor who was part of the walkout. “There was no abuse while I was there.”

Doctors were annoyed at the attitude, ‘just give them a few sweeties and they’ll do it’

Even after the walkout, the atmosphere at the meeting remained tense.

“The debate was very difficult. It was respectful overall but some of the comments made were ugly,” said one doctor.

Speakers complained that doctors had never asked for a GP-led abortion service – the proposal came from Oireachtas hearings – that the issue had been badly handled by the Government and that the ICGP was acting as the Government’s “patsy”.

Doctors’ pay

Frustration at the Government’s failure to unwind cuts introduced to doctors’ pay during the recession as part of financial emergency legislation (Fempi) and the marathon talks on a new GP contract also surfaced.

It was pointed out that the €450 which GPs will receive for treating women seeking a termination is twice the amount the State pays for antenatal care over the nine months of a woman’s pregnancy.

“Doctors were annoyed at the attitude ‘just give them a few sweeties and they’ll do it’,” according to one GP who was present.

One issue that united many speakers was a belief that there was “no way” abortion could be introduced by January 1st.

Worries were expressed about legal issues arising from a lack of ultrasound or in the cases where the medication failed to work fully.

Issues relating to indemnity, referral pathways, insurance and education remain to be resolved, the meeting heard.

The group of doctors who walked out of the meeting had already begun collecting signatures for a new egm while it was still going on. They will need about 350 signatures – 10 per cent of the ICGP’s members – to force a second meeting but this is unlikely to take place until well into the new year.

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