Medical Council to update guidelines on conscientious objection

Anti-abortion doctors call for protection to extend to those who refuse to refer patients on

The Medical Council is to review the guidelines on conscientious objection in its professional code of conduct ahead of the introduction of legal abortion in the State.

The council, which is responsible for regulating doctors, told the Oireachtas Health Committee it would update its guidelines as appropriate to cover cases where doctors do not wish to carry out abortions and where there is an issue about referring patients on to doctors who will carry out terminations.

The Government has said abortion services will be offered to women from January through a GP-led service.

Dr Suzanne Crowe, a member of the council, told the committee it wanted to have a "very clear code of conduct for the doctor in stepping out and stepping aside but still keeping the patient front and centre".


Some anti-abortion doctors have urged the Government to extend protections for conscientious objectors to those who refuse to refer patients on to doctors who would carry out an abortion. This would, under the proposed abortion Bill, be a breach of the law.

Dr Tony Cox, medical director of the Irish College of General Practitioners, said the college wanted the guidelines to be "absolutely and completely patient-centred".

Dr Mary Favier, vice-president of the college, said doctors were "only starting" to have conversations about abortion because, until the referendum, the ban on abortion had a "serious chilling effect" in medicine where practitioners could not talk about it and where it was "actively discouraged and criminalised".

There was a deadline of January 1st next to introduce abortion services in Ireland but the conversation about the changes coming into effect would take a much longer period to work through, she added.


Bill Prasifka, chief executive of the Medical Council, said its current guidelines set a "very strong duty to ensure continuity of care, to act in the best interest of the patient". If doctors fall short, he said, they could face a list of sanctions by the council, including removing their right to practise medicine.

Elaine Breslin, of the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA), the State's medicines regulator, told the committee it was engaging with three companies that had sought approval to sell abortion medication here.

She said authorisation could be issued before the end of the year and further applications were expected to come early next year.

“If an authorisation is granted for a medicine for the termination of pregnancy, the HPRA has requested that the company would expedite the process for making supplies available in Ireland in order to facilitate the timely implementation of services,” Ms Breslin said.

The Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has said that based on abortion figures in Scotland, which has a similar population to Ireland, it expects about 90 per cent of abortions to be medically induced.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent