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'We had a very short interval': Some practitioners concerned over timing of abortion services

Some hospitals are waiting for the system to be fully up and running before providing the service.

Dr Cliona Murphy
Dr Cliona Murphy
Image: RollingNews.ie

MEMBERS OF THE Institute of Obstetricians and Gynecologists – the national training body for obstetricians and gynaecologists  — have raised concerns about the short length of time between signing and enactment of legislation for abortion services in Ireland.  

Speaking on Morning Ireland, director Dr Cliona Murphy expressed the institution’s wish that there had been a longer lead-in time for hospitals instead of the 1 January deadline imposed by the Minister for Health. 

Ordinarily, you’d have legislation. There’d be some lead-in period before legislation is enacted. In this case we did have a very short interval,” said Murphy. 

This was because of public desire to have the service “up and running,” she said, but some practitioners, “would feel that that was very short to bring in such a large change management project”.

A referendum to repeal the constitutional ban on early terminations was passed on 25 May 2018, and subsequent legislation signed into law by President Michael D Higgins on 20 December. 

Health Minister Simon Harris had made a commitment for abortion services to be rolled out on 1 January 2019. 

However, some members felt a more “phased roll-out” would have been better, Murphy said today, adding that, in reality, that’s actually what appears to be happening on the ground. 

Ahead of the deadline, hospitals and GPs worked with the HSE and the Department of Health, with some telling the Minister they would not be able to adhere to the 1 January deadline. The National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street began its services, with a number of other hospitals and women’s health clinics on Monday, 7 January. 

Murphy mentioned that there has been positive feedback from hospitals where terminations have already occurred, quoting one staff member as saying, “how did we send these patients away before?”

The concerns were raised by members at a extraordinary general meeting held by the institution yesterday evening.

The group also focused on request for a national co-ordinator to be appointed to ensure oversight and a named person in the HSE with responsibility for the services.

Rostering issues

There’s some frustration from members around operational issues “on the ground”, such as shortages in the number of staff willing to assist in the procedures, due to conscientious objection, Murphy told Morning Ireland. 

If there’s only a “small core” of staff willing to provide these services, they are under greater pressure to do so. This is “proving difficult” in some hospitals, she said.

Some hospitals are opting to wait until the system is fully up and running. The Coombe Women’s and Infants Hospital, where Murphy works, has decided “that it would prefer to have all systems working correctly” regarding rostering and “making sure consent forms are exactly the way they want them”.

On the other side, there is “good engagement” from staff, including conscientious objectors, in helping to plan the services.

At yesterday’s meeting, members of the institution had planned to table a motion saying that terminations should not take place before risks concerning patient safety are addressed.

The motion was seen as “moot,” and not voted on, since 1 January — when abortion services were introduced in Ireland — had already passed.

“The fact that is that women are better off than they were two months ago, women in crisis,” said Murphy. 

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