Harris rules out change to three-day wait for abortions

Health committee told waiting period is unnecessary and without medical reason

Minister for Health Simon Harris at launch of the HSE’s HPV Vaccine Information Campaign at the Royal Hibernian Academy Gallery, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Minister for Health Simon Harris at launch of the HSE’s HPV Vaccine Information Campaign at the Royal Hibernian Academy Gallery, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

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The Government will not accept amendments to the forthcoming abortion legislation which would shorten or abolish the proposed three-day waiting period for access to a termination of pregnancy, the Minister for Health has said.

Simon Harris last night confirmed that he would not accept the suggestions made before the Oireachtas health committee on Wednesday by doctors, who said the three-day waiting period was unnecessary and without medical reason.

Dr Peter Boylan, chairman of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, argued that the waiting period was “demeaning” and “makes presumptions about women’s ability to make decisions about their own healthcare”.

Dr Peter Boylan, chairman of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, argued that the waiting period was “demeaning” and “makes presumptions about women’s ability to make decisions about their own healthcare”. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Dr Peter Boylan, chairman of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The waiting period was part of the draft legislation published by the Government before the referendum. The Government’s view is that people voted in the referendum having considered the draft legislation, and that it should not be changed at this stage, Mr Harris’s office said.

Although there is likely to be a strong majority in the Dáil in favour of the abortion Bill, parliamentary battles over the legislation are looming.

Ruth Coppinger said her Solidarity-People Before Profit grouping would be seeking amendments to the legislation on the three-day limit and also to change the likely requirement in the legislation for a threat of “serious harm” to the woman in order to obtain an abortion after 12 weeks.

Conscientious objection

Mr Harris will also refuse amendments which TDs opposed to abortion are likely to table, providing for a conscientious objection for anti-abortion doctors who do not wish to refer patients to doctors who will facilitate abortions.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath said that anti-abortion TDs were likely to table amendments in support of conscientious objection by doctors opposed to abortion, and possibly on other aspects of the law.

Mr Harris is likely to bring the final abortion legislation to Cabinet for approval next week, before it is brought to the floor of the Dáil on October 3rd. The Government hopes to have the legislation on the statute books by the end of October and the services operating by the beginning of next year.

A spokeswoman for Mr Harris said the Minister welcomed the “constructive suggestions from medical professionals and intends to meet with them directly shortly”.

“Alongside working on the legislation, his department has been engaging with the medical community and it is a priority for the Government to develop and deliver a woman-centred, safe and regulated service for the termination of pregnancy,” the spokeswoman said.

Mr Harris’s office also played down fears expressed by doctors at the health committee that abortion services would not be operational by the beginning of next year, as the Government has promised.

‘Ambitious’

A spokeswoman said that “working together, services can and will commence in January 2019 and that we should be ambitious for women who have waited long enough.”

However, Dr Boylan described the January deadline for providing abortion services as “challenging”.

Dr John O’Brien, president of the College of General Practitioners, cast doubt on the ability of the country’s GP system to provide abortion services from that point. He outlined the existing strain on GP resources and services, noting that 60 per cent of GP practices are closed to new patients, having reached capacity.

The general pressure on GP services would have an impact on the delivery of abortion services, he said.

“And there isn’t a plan B?” asked Independent Senator John Dolan.

“I don’t even know a plan A,” said Dr O’Brien.

Dr Murphy estimated that, based on figures on abortions in Scotland, there could be 10,000 Irish abortions next year and that 20 per cent of those might require surgical treatment.

Dr Boylan stressed the importance of MRI scans in determining whether foetal abnormalities are fatal or not, and said MRI was currently only available in one maternity hospital in the State.

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