The Department of Health has told the Health Service Executive to ensure abortion will be available in all 19 maternity units from January 1st, amid continuing uncertainty over whether the Government’s deadline for the introduction of the service will be met.
The department has also asked the 19 units to provide updates on how they plan to provide for abortion services from the New Year onwards. Doctors in a number of smaller maternity units have said they do not have the resources to provide the service from next month.
Dozens of doctors walked out of a meeting of GPs held on Sunday to discuss concerns about the provision of abortion, and afterwards claimed a “serious crisis” exists about the rollout of the service that the Government cannot ignore.
More than 300 members of the Irish College of General Practitioners attended the three-hour extraordinary general meeting in Malahide, but the group of mostly anti-abortion doctors staged a walkout after half an hour.
Reporters present estimated 40-50 doctors had left the meeting, which was held in private, but those involved claimed up to half the attendance walked out.
The group is now expected to seek a further EGM to debate change on conscientious objection that would ensure doctors would have to refer a woman seeking an abortion to a colleague if they did not want to treat her on grounds of conscience.
A second EGM could not be held before the New Year, after the new abortion service is introduced, however.
Minister for Health Simon Harris acknowledged doctors had a right to conscientious objection but "women also have a right to healthcare" and "one right cannot trump another".
While it was “okay” for doctors to have different views “the people have spoken and the campaign is over”.
The Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill is due to return before the Dáil this week, where TDs are expected to debate and vote on issues such as conscientious objection. Sinn Féin is understood to favour holding a late-night sitting on Wednesday to ensure the legislation passes in time for the January target date.
Funding is being provided by the HSE for a series of educational sessions for healthcare staff who will be providing abortion services. These are due to start on December 10th and will be made available to all staff who will be providing a termination of pregnancy service from January 1st, across community and hospital settings.
Medical colleges are continuing to develop clinical guidelines for termination of pregnancy. The aim is to have those ready in time for the rollout of the services from January onwards. Those guidelines will be kept under review, sources said.
Concerns have been raised in recent weeks about the availability of anomaly scanning machines; however, 14 out of 19 maternity units can now offer anomaly scans, up from seven in 2017. Recruitment and training for the remaining five units is under way, with the aim of having anomaly scanning offered to all women in all maternity units during 2019.
The new law will provide for a termination where there a risk to the life or serious harm to the health of a pregnant woman; where there is a fatal foetal abnormality; or where the pregnancy has not gone beyond 12 weeks.