By James Ward, PA
A review is to take place into the “impact, operation and effectiveness” of Ireland’s abortion legislation, the Health Minister has announced.
Stephen Donnelly said he is not satisfied that access to abortion services is spread equally across the country.
The review will consist of a consultation among members of the public, stakeholders and advocacy groups working in the area, as well as a “detailed examination” on the experiences of service users.
Minister for Health, @DonnellyStephen has today commenced the Review of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018. As part of the 1st phase of the review, the Minister has announced a public consultation on the operation of the Act: https://t.co/K5jsfEb9kO
— Department of Health (@roinnslainte) December 8, 2021
Mr Donnelly said the review will focus on the operation of the legislation, rather than the policy itself, but indicated that changes to the law could arise from it.
“What we have seen is a very significant reduction in the number of women traveling to the UK,” Mr Donnelly told the Oireachtas Health Committee on Wednesday.
“For those of us who were involved in the advocacy and for those of us who were involved in the battle, that was one of the big questions.
“Was this essentially going to move provision of service from mainly in the UK to mainly in Ireland?
“Certainly the numbers of women involved and travelling versus the number of terminations provided here would suggest that that objective largely has been achieved.
“However, there are still a number of women who are travelling and I think that, for example, would be one of the things that would be covered in this review.
“Why are they travelling? Why do they feel the need to travel? Is it operating as well as it should?”
Mr Donnelly said he expects the review will raise questions around geographic coverage.
“It is the case that not all maternity hospitals are providing the service. There is a relatively small percentage of GPs who are providing the service.
“I know that there are geographic difficulties, for example.”
He added: “Have we achieved broad geographic coverage? I would say no, I don’t believe we have.”
Mr Donnelly highlighted that Section 22 of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 provides for conscientious objection.
“We have, I think, quite rightly provided for conscientious objection given the unique nature of this particular service,” he said.
“But I don’t believe we have achieved the level of geographic coverage and ease of access that is required.”
Geraldine Luddy, principal officer at the Department of Health, told the committee that 375 women travelled to the UK to access abortion services in 2020.
She said these were predominantly cases where there was a foetal abnormality which was not fatal, or where women were more than 12 weeks pregnant.
Ms Luddy said: “In the Act there is unrestricted access to terminations when you’re under 12 weeks, but over that there has to be clinical reason.
“That’s just to give you some sense of what we know from the figures there.”
She added: “The HSE know that the coverage is not adequate, they know that the geographical spread needs to be improved.
“At the moment we have 10 of the 19 hospitals offering a full service.
“All of them offer some service of termination, but a full service, we have 10 and we do need to get this geographical spread, that it is in every county.”
Ms Luddy said the HSE had made arrangements to visit hospitals which “weren’t performing and that weren’t participating”, but this was halted at the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020.
She added that that process is now set to resume, and the HSE is “hoping to bring more hospitals on board for full range of service”.