GPs must be allowed decide for themselves whether to offer abortion

One group representing family doctors met in Portlaoise to discuss formal response to abortion referendum

Not every GP will be able to provide for abortion because of a “host of factors”, including everyday practicalities, a spokeswoman for the National Association of General Practitioners said. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Not every GP will be able to provide for abortion because of a “host of factors”, including everyday practicalities, a spokeswoman for the National Association of General Practitioners said. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

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Family doctors will tell the government they must be allowed decide for themselves whether to offer abortion or not.

The National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP), which says it represents 2,500 of Ireland’s 3,500 GPs, has agreed “overwhelmingly” to demand an “opt-in” approach to providing pregnancy terminations.

It also estimates eight in ten GPs would choose not to opt-in under such a system.

At an extraordinary general meeting on Saturday in response to the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, the association heard from GPs from around the country “struggling” with the implications of the referendum outcome.

Conscientious objectors and those who felt they didn’t have the time or resources to offer a safe service spoke at the closed-door meeting in Portlaoise, spokeswoman Dr Bríd Walsh told The Irish Times.

A suggested “opt-out GP-led service” could have ramifications for those doctors, she said.

“If you are a GP and you wanted no role in this, you could potentially be prosecuted and brought before the Medical Council,” said Dr Walsh.

“We had a very open conversation about how this should be an opt-in service, where one chooses to upskill and chooses to provide the service.

“It is a far more reasonable and rational way to approach this.

Dr Walsh said she believed about one fifth of GPs would be willing to provide abortion services.

She said that figure “would more than meet” demand on the basis of the number of women who currently travel to the UK for abortions.

“I feel 70-80 per cent may choose not to opt in ... but they may choose to do so once they see the service being provided and they are more confident it is being funded” and legal ramifications are clear.

“At the moment, I couldn’t see where a single-handed doctor would have the time to opt in.”

Dr Walsh said there is a “misperception that GPs are looking to block” abortion services but stressed they “most assuredly are not”.

“As a Yes voter I have no interest in blocking anything, but we want a discussion on the practicalities of the issue,” she said.

Dr Walsh said not every GP would be able to provide for abortion because of a “host of factors”, including everyday practicalities, such as staffing levels and access to ultrasounds and counselling for patients, as well as reasons of conscience.

“There are national variations. I work in Kerry, my ultrasound can take up to six months, my access to counselling can be four to six months,” she said.

“There could be a geographic divide in areas where a service could be provided quickly and those where it could not.

“In among that too are conscientious objectors. But I would say they are probably a small number. Most of us are just struggling with the practicalities of what this will entail.”

The NAGP has long been critical of what it says is a lack of engagement from Minister for Health Simon Harris and his department.

There is presently a “one-sided conversation” about abortion services at government level and the Department of Health ought to “have the respect to engage with those they have anointed as providers of service,” said Dr Walsh.

“We just want clarity, we are trying to figure out what this means in bread and butter terms in our practices from Monday to Friday,” she added.

“I would say the vast majority of GPs, sadly at this point, are resigned to the indifference of the Department and the Minister and their lack of engagement is nothing new.”

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