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GPs who refuse to refer on patients seeking an abortion will need to respect 'law of the land'

The Cabinet is discussing the planned passage of the legislation this morning.

Health Minister Simon Harris
Health Minister Simon Harris
Image: RollingNews.ie

Updated at 9am 

LEGISLATION TO GIVE effect to the result of Friday’s abortion referendum will be introduced to the Dáil before the summer break, Health Minister Simon Harris has said.

The Cabinet is discussing its planned passage this morning.

Speaking on Claire Byrne Live last night, Harris said he didn’t expect any substantial changes between the already-published outline of the bill and the final legislation.

“I think these have been the most discussed heads of bill of perhaps any legislation ever.

I took a conscious decision, along with the rest of the government, to publish the heads of bill before the referendum because people rightly wanted to know, if I voted Yes, what will the law look like?

People cast their ballots in the full knowledge that this would be the legislation, he said.

The outline of the bill proposes to legislate for abortion up to 12 weeks in all circumstances – after that termination beyond that point will only take place in exceptional cases.

Department officials will start meeting with medical associations from today to draw up medical guidelines, in a process that will take place at the same time as the progress of the legislation.

He said improved access to contraception, better sex education for schools and increased counselling services – all of which were recommended by the Oireachtas committee that examined the issue of abortion – would be rolled out from next year.

The health service would be properly resourced to provide for the new services, he said.

Speaking on his way in to Cabinet this morning, Harris said the government is “determined” to get this right.

Timeline

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said over the weekend that laws giving effect to Friday’s referendum could be enacted before the end of the year – however some Yes campaigners have called for a shorter timeline.

Speaking to Claire Byrne, Harris said that if needed the Oireachtas could work for several extra weeks to get the legislation through. It would still likely take until the end of the year to complete the process, however, he said.

Speaking yesterday, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he would support summer sittings of the Dáil if the legislation was prepared in time.

Michael Harty, the independent TD who chairs the Oireachtas Health Committee has said his panel will likely sit during the summer to work on the legislation.

Conscientious objection would also be provided for under the new regime, Harris said – adding that GPs who objected to abortion would have to refer patients elsewhere.

Some GPs who took part in TV debates had said they could not, in good conscience, do that – and that they would refuse to refer women on.

“The law of the land will be very clear on that,” Harris said.

Medical Council guidelines already deal with issues of conscientious objection and I expect the Medical Council will deal with that.

He said he expected only a small number of GPs would refuse to refer a patient on and that the vast majority of doctors, regardless of personal view, would respect the mandate of the referendum.

In a fresh statement this morning, the Doctors for Choice group said they believed it was “entirely possible” that a doctor-led service can be established in Ireland, and that the numbers made that clear.

According to the statement:

“On current figures if only 100 of the approximated 2500 general practitioners in Ireland were willing to provide this service each GP would deal with 26 requests a year, that’s one every two weeks.

“If 400 GPs were willing to provide this healthcare service, they would see an average of 6 to 7 per year.

“We recognise that some GPs are conscientious objectors to providing this service.

As in other jurisdictions, the Medical Council will give guidance to these doctors about accommodating their objections when women in crisis pregnancy attend them for care.

However, in an interview with RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, Dr Máitiú Ó Tuathail, President of the National Association of General Practitioners, said that he doesn’t see how the new abortion services can be provided within the current GP services, and that he doesn’t believe it can be set up in the timeframe set out by the health minister.

He also said that a separate clinic system is the most likely solution.

He commented:

“I don’t see a system that could work as part of the day for GPs … it’ll be very difficult to provide this service within the clinics that GPs have generally… we’ll have to work out another system and I think that perhaps the only way to do that is if we had clinics and that the services would be provided in the clinics – proper psychological services, proper ultrasound services, and doctors who have the skills to provide them.”

In opinion polls carried out on behalf of Claire Byrne Live, 72% of those surveyed said that TDs and Senators should work through the summer recess to pass abortion legislation.

The same percentage of people agreed there should be exclusion zones at GP clinics and hospitals which will provide termination services. The polls were carried out by Amárach Research.

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