The Government will act immediately to address gaps in the provision of abortion services in Ireland, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has pledged.
A report by barrister Marie O’Shea into the effectiveness of Ireland’s abortion law, in place since January 2019 following the referendum to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, has recommended a number of changes to the legislation. It has also recommended a number of operational changes in order to increase the level of abortion services available in communities and hospitals.
Cabinet Ministers are split on proposals to change Ireland’s abortion law, with Green Party Ministers backing the removal of the three-day waiting period to access termination medication.
The Taoiseach has said he would be “reluctant and uncomfortable” to make significant changes to the current abortion regime, and it is understood that other Fine Gael Ministers have similar concerns.
The report found that in some counties, service provision is reliant on “a handful of providers across primary care and hospital setting. There is a potential risk that these staff may burn out. The service is untenable.”
Mr Varadkar said the Government would act quickly to address the gaps in the service. “The Government considered the report today. Minister Donnelly will publish it tomorrow and people will have a chance to read it then. He has referred it to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health for its advice and deliberations. It will be up to the committee to decide how long it takes to do that. Obviously, that is an all-party committee.
“I should say that with relation to the operational recommendations which show gaps in the service, we are going to act on that right away. That is being referred to the HSE for implementation.”
He said there are around 400 GP practices that provide abortion services in Ireland. In terms of geographical coverage, the review finds that fewer contracts between the HSE and primary care providers are recorded in the southeast, northwest, midlands and Border counties.
The review recommends that the Department of Health consider amending the law to expand the range of health professionals who may provide termination of pregnancy services to include, for example, midwives and junior doctors. This could help to address the gaps in service, it says.
“That is not a small number. Over 8,000 abortions were performed in Ireland last year, that isn’t a small number either. There are some gaps in some regions, however, and we need to encourage GPs those regions to provide the service. The HSE will be working on that.”
There are 19 hospitals in Ireland that provide obstetric and gynaecological services, but only 11 provide surgical terminations, “which is not enough,” said Mr Varadkar
“A programme is being put in place to ensure that, by the end of this year, if not early next year, all 19 will provide the service.”
The review recommends increasing the number of GPs providing service to 6,000 by 2028. The National Women’s Council (NWC) welcomed Ms O’Shea’s report and said a timeline must be set for consideration before the Oireachtas Committee on Health.
NWC director Orla O’Connor said the referendum to Repeal the Eighth Amendment was a “watershed moment for the women of Ireland”.
“But we know many barriers to access remain. This review, guaranteed by law, was an essential piece of the legislation when it was introduced and it’s very welcome to see it now.”
The Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) said the Government and Oireachtas “must act promptly to ensure the harms, delays and barriers that currently impede access to abortion care are addressed, through both legislative and operational reforms.”
“Political foot-dragging cannot be allowed to stand in the way of legislative reforms that can address these harms and deliver much needed improvements in access.”