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Health Minister says testimony included in HSE abortion report is 'heartbreaking'

The research found that current abortion legislation does not meet the needs of those seeking termination for foetal anomalies.

Image: Sam Boal via Rolling Images

HEALTH MINISTER STEPHEN Donnelly has described the situation facing women who cannot access care for fatal foetal anomalies as “heartbreaking” following the release of a HSE study reviewing the 2019 abortion legislation.

Minster Donnelly said that he will be taking the testimony of the women surveyed as part of the research “very, very seriously”, and said that his “thoughts really go out” to those affected.

The Unplanned Pregnancy and Abortion Care study, led by Dr Catherine Conlon of Trinity College Dublin and commissioned by the HSE, found that current abortion legislation does not meet the needs of those seeking termination for foetal anomalies.

The research was shaped by the testimonies of 58 women who sought abortions between December 2019 and August 2021.

The review’s key findings highlight the difficulties faced by women living in rural areas in accessing services and restrictions within the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act preventing women with foetal anomalies in accessing abortion services after 12 weeks of pregnancy.

“Women [find] themselves hoping for a ‘fatal enough’ diagnosis rather than being denied care and faced with travelling,” the report stated.

It also outlines the positive response among interviewees to the HSE’s unplanned pregnancy support service, My Options.

The research recommends that the Department of Health replace the mandatory three day waiting period with service provision based on one consultation, with an optional second consultation, and that abortion services be made available in all maternity hospitals.

The review also asks the Department of Health to re-evaluate the criminalisation aspect of the current legislation, whereby doctors cannot perform terminations outside of the criteria outlined in the Act.

Commenting on the research, Dr Conlon said: “From listening to the experiences of the 58 women we interviewed for this study it is clear that legalising abortion in Ireland has enhanced women’s well-being, dignity and autonomy. Provision of abortion care under 12 weeks’ gestation is working well and women reported quality, acceptable care from conscientious, committed providers.”

“Those seeking care regarding foetal anomaly, however, did not feel the service met their needs and described a protracted assessment process from which they felt heavily excluded.

“We know from international data that women continue to travel abroad to access abortion services and now our research illustrates how these women and their families feel let down, angry and bewildered at a time of acute loss and anguish,” she said.

Review

The study is just one of many submissions to the review of the current abortion legislation, which the Department of Health is obliged to carry out under section 7 of the 2018 Act within three years of commencement.

Speaking at the launch of Fianna Fáil’s women’s health policy, Minister Donnelly said that his department is “listening very carefully” to service users and service providers in the process of reviewing the current legislation.

The policy is a culmination of 103 commitments across the areas of reproductive, mental and physical health and seeks to provide more “tailored services for women of all ages”. It is backed by €31 million of ring fenced funding.

Its launch came just hours after the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which seeks to provide free contraception for women aged 17-25, passed through all the stages of the Dáil, Minister Donnelly said.

The Health Minister also said that he submitted the General Scheme of a Bill to introduce safe access zones to protect women and staff from intimidation when entering healthcare facilities that provide abortion care for consideration to Cabinet, adding that he would love to see the legislation come into action “in this calendar year”.

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“It’s a good day in terms of women’s health,” Minister Donnelly said.

“Women’s healthcare has never been invested in at the level that it should be. It’s never been prioritised the way that it should be.

“We have a dark history when it comes to women’s health care, particularly around women’s reproductive health. But I think we’re moving rapidly in the right direction.

“If [the Government] were able to achieve the progress across the entire healthcare system that we’re achieving in women’s health care, we’d be in a phenomenal place,” he said.

Under section 20 of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018, the Minister is required no later than 30 June each year to prepare a report detailing the number of terminations carried out over the course of the preceding year.

The Minster is obliged to “lay this report before the Oireachtas as soon as practicable afterwards”.

The Journal understands that this report is completed and is expected to be presented to government tomorrow.

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