Abortion service will have to be 'phased in' from January – Harris

Abortion services will have to be phased in from January as a significant number of GPs and maternity hospitals do not feel ready to fully participate, it emerged yesterday.

It means that women seeking a medical abortion from their GP may not find it available locally and will have to travel some distance.

The full extent of what level of service is likely from January 1 will not emerge until later next week, when it is expected the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill will be passed by the Seanad and signed into law.

A meeting between Health Minister Simon Harris, health officials and medics clarified that a lot of preparation work has been done by the HSE, but had not been made clear to doctors and hospitals.

It is still unclear how many hospitals will be able to provide terminations to women whose unborn baby has been diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality.

Once it is passed into law the HSE will start advertising its My Options 24/7 phone line, manned by counsellors and backed by nurses.

This is a key element of the new service and will direct women to the nearest participating GP or hospital.

There will be no publicly available register of participating GPs and the names will only be disclosed to women after they ring the phone line.

The phone line will be advertised on radio and online, as well as through posters and pharmacies.

From mid-January it will be on bus shelters and on internal bus ads.

A major concern among doctors remains access to ultrasounds to date pregnancies.

Talks with hospitals and private providers are expected to conclude this week to allow for more information on the location of scans.

The Irish College of General Practitioners and the Institute of Obstetricians are also due to meet tomorrow to progress draft clinical guidelines.

These are essential step-by-step advice and instructions which GPs and hospitals should follow in the care of women in order to ensure their safety and prevent complications.

The HSE said it has received a substantial number of expressions of interest from GPs and the next step is to get them to return a participating contract before the end of this week. Neither the National Maternity Hospital nor the Coombe Maternity Hospitals were able to say if they will be ready to provide a full service from January at yesterday’s meeting.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that abortion services may not be available in every hospital from January, but terminations will be accessible in Ireland from the start of 2019. The Taoiseach noted that the legislation still has to go through the Seanad, and may be returned to the Dáil if there are amendments.

In response, Mr Harris said: “The Taoiseach is entirely correct in stating that if these Houses of the Oireachtas pass the legislation and if the President of Ireland signs that legislation into law, services will be available in January.”

He said hundreds of women wanting a termination will have access to services in their own country, and will no longer have to fly to England. He said buying an “illegal abortion pill will no longer be necessary”.

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