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Simon Harris 'This is the beginning of a new era for women’s health'

‘Change is coming,’ writes Health Minister Simon Harris following the passing of abortion legislation through the Dáil.

SIX MONTHS AGO, 1.42 million people voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment and to care for women in crisis pregnancies in this country.

Many of them had waited 35 years to cast their vote. Many others voted with the weight of their own personal experiences upon them.

It took three decades to build the revolution. For that brave minority of campaigners, it may have seemed a tireless and fruitless exercise.

However, every time those men and women stood up against this injustice, the walls of oppression and resistance began to fall.

Their perseverance resulted in the galvanisation of a generation eager to break free from the shackles of the past and shape the society it wanted to live in.

As Minister for Health, it is my responsibility to act on the mandate given to me by the Irish people and today, we move one step closer to achieving that aim.

The Dáil has now passed the Termination of Pregnancy Bill by and the Seanad will now consider the legislation.

As outlined prior to the referendum, the Bill allows for access to abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy with no restriction to reason.

Beyond that terminations will only be permitted when a woman’s life or health is at risk. Abortions will also be accessible when there is a diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality.

As legislators, it is our job to scrutinise the Bill before us, but we must remind ourselves of the realities still facing women in crisis pregnancies daily.

Since the people voted, over 2,300 women have found themselves in crisis and despite the overwhelming referendum result, the State has been unable to offer them the care they need.

I have listened to hours of debate in the Oireachtas over the past number of weeks. Many of the TDs have raised genuine issues of concern and I have always sought to engage constructively with them.

But there were others who obstructed and delayed this legislation. Some TDs wanted to rerun the referendum and blatantly disregard the will of the people.

With respect to the genuinely held feelings of the minority, we have a duty to the principles of the majority decision to provide women the right to safe and compassionate care in their own country.

Introduction of abortion services

In the aftermath of the referendum, I asked for abortion services to be introduced in this country in January. This is not a political deadline, as some commentators have suggested but an acknowledgement that women have waited too long for these services and without a deadline, their wait will continue.

There has been lots of discussion over the past number of days about the introduction of the services and again, most people are raising genuine questions. But there is a small minority trying to create a fictional crisis, aided by some aspects of the media.

So, let me clear about the work that is underway by the Department of Health, the Health Service Executive and Dr Peter Boylan to provide this service in January.

An agreement has been reached between the Irish Medical Organisation and the Department of Health on a fee for GPs providing the service. Each GP has been written to, expressions of interest in providing the service have been sought and details of the level of participation should be known over the coming weeks.

The HSE has also been working closely with the Irish Family Planning Association and the Well Woman Centre to ensure they are able to provide the service from January.

Hospitals have provided a plan for the rollout of termination services from January. These are currently being examined by Dr Boylan and the Women and Infants Programme.

For the service user, there will be a 24-hour helpline. It will offer the information, non-directive counselling, and if required, free face to face counselling. Crucially, it will direct the woman to her nearest provider willing to provide the service.

When the legislation is enacted, the HSE will run radio advertisements and digital advertisements informing the public of this phone line.

The HSE will also have new content on abortion services ready to go live on when the legislation is enacted.

Posters and leaflets for the counselling line, along with a new leaflet on contraception, will be delivered to GP surgeries and acute hospitals.

This is all matched by significant resources allocated in Budget 2019.

The introduction of any new service will bring challenges and difficulties but none of these issues should delay the introduction of the service.

The women of Ireland have demanded political leadership and I believe the majority of the Oireachtas has delivered upon that instruction.

We now require clinical leadership and I know the medical profession will respond.

I accept there is more work to be done in this area. I am committed to introducing safe access zones to assist medical professionals willing to provide this service and to protect women from harassment and discrimination. Work is underway by the Department and the Attorney General in drafting a Bill for publication in 2019.

There is significant work still to be done in reducing the number of crisis pregnancies. Work is ongoing to explore all the issues associated with enhancing access to contraception, including associated costs.

The chief medical officer in my Department Dr Tony Holohan has been working extraordinarily hard in this area and I look forward to progressing proposals in this regard in 2019.

We will also proceed with a Women’s Health Action Plan next year.

‘Change is coming’

The journey has been long but we have at the end been given a clear direction by the people and we will not be diverted from the path.

I know there are many women reading this article who have experienced crisis pregnancies and who have had to travel abroad for assistance. I want you to know I am committed to ensuring women will not have to endure similar journeys.

I know there are doctors, midwives and nurses working tirelessly to play their part in the provision of services. Your dedication to providing care to women in crisis will not be forgotten and will be matched by government resources.

I know there are medical professionals reading this who have a conscientious objection to providing this service. I want your rights to be respected and upheld.

I also know there are people who are engaged in conscientious obstruction and I want you to know your efforts will not succeed. You will not deter me or my colleagues in ensuring a safe, woman-centred service is in place in January.

Change is coming. You will not alter its inevitably or change its character.

This is the beginning of a new era for women’s health ushered in by a prevailing spirit of solidarity, inclusivity and equality.

Minister for Health Simon Harris
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