The Minister for Health has said he does not believe sufficient ease of access to abortion or geographic spread of services have been achieved.
Stephen Donnelly was speaking as he announced a review into the “impact, operation and effectiveness” of the State’s abortion legislation.
Public consultation on the review, which Mr Donnelly launched on Wednesday, provides an opportunity for the public, organisations, stakeholders, advocacy groups working in the area and all other interested parties to make a submission on the operation of the legislation. An independent chairperson will also be appointed early next year with a review published next summer or autumn.
Mr Donnelly said the purpose of the review, which was promised within three years of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 coming into force, was to ensure the legislation was operating as it was intended. He said it was not intended as a review of policy on terminations.
Later at the committee meeting, Mr Donnelly told Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall that public consultation was very much directed at women service users, and if they felt changes should be made to the legislation, those submissions could be made.
Mr Donnelly told the Oireachtas Committee on Health that he expected the review would raise questions about geographic coverage. “It is the case that not all maternity hospitals are providing the service. There is a relatively small percentage of GPs who are providing the service.”
Mr Donnelly highlighted that section 22 of the Act provided for conscientious objection. “We have, I think, quite rightly provided for conscientious objection given the unique nature of this particular service,” he said. “But I don’t believe we have achieved the level of geographic coverage and ease of access that is required.”
Geraldine Luddy, principal officer at the Department of Health, told the meeting that 10 out of 19 hospitals were offering a full service and all offered some termination service. “The HSE knows that the coverage is not adequate; they know that the geographical spread needs to be improved,” she said.
Mr Donnelly told the Oireachtas Health Committee that issues such as changes to the “12-week” rule on pregnancy terminations were not to be covered by the review. This rule allows termination of pregnancy without restriction up to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
“What we have seen is a very significant reduction in the number of women travelling to the UK,” Mr Donnelly said .
“For those of us who were involved in the advocacy and for those of us who were involved in the battle, that was one of the big questions.
“Was this essentially going to move provision of service from mainly in the UK to mainly in Ireland?
“Certainly the numbers of women involved and travelling versus the number of terminations provided here would suggest that that objective largely has been achieved.” He said one of the things covered in the review would be why some women were still travelling.
Mr Donnelly was criticised by a number of committee members for launching the terms of reference of the review before they had been given a copy, and before a chairperson was appointed.
In a statement, the Pro-Life Campaign said the “one-sided approach” of the Minister would leave one to believe the review would be a “cold house” for those with anti-abortion views. It said the language on the appointment of a chair was “deeply concerning” and called for a “truly independent chair”.
The Irish Family Planning Association said it was “deeply concerned” and the delay in appointing a chairperson and confusion about the scope may “jeopardise this opportunity to improve access to abortion”. – Additional reporting PA