Abortion laws ‘must not leave doctors in fear of prosecution’

The government has been urged to improve its draft legislation on abortion to stop doctors interpreting the new laws too conservatively.

A position paper by experts from Dublin City University, the University of Birmingham and Queen Mary University of London said that the government should consider asking doctors who have a conscientious objection to providing abortion care to declare it before the law comes into effect. Clinical guidelines that are due to be introduced alongside the legislation should clarify when and how a doctor who holds a conscientious objection should disclose it, it says.

“Hospitals and general practitioners should be required to publish information making patients aware of the fact that personnel hold a conscientious objection, for example, on websites, in practice leaflets and on posters in public areas,” the paper says.

The Times revealed last month that a new “code of ethics” drafted by the Irish Catholic Bishops suggested that Catholic hospitals could break the law and refuse to offer abortions in all circumstances.

“Clinical guidelines should address the intersection of the general scheme with Catholic medical ethics, to ensure equality of abortion access for all pregnant people. Additional research, or public hearings, may be required to identify likely areas of conflict,” the paper says.

The state should take steps to ensure all pregnant women can access the care they need equitably in the event that a mass conscientious objection makes abortion inaccessible in a particular area or hospital, they say.

The experts found that women in Ireland could still be denied abortions because doctors fear lengthy jail terms or refuse to terminate pregnancies because they object on principle. The authors say that the proposed bill does not make a strong enough break with abortion being a crime that carries the risk of up to 14 years’ imprisonment.

“It remains a serious offence for a doctor to carry out an abortion and much of the draft legislation’s language frames abortion in criminal terms, suggesting that termination remains an unusual and stigmatised procedure under Irish law,” said Máiréad Enright, a co-author from the University of Birmingham. “Residual criminalisation may see some doctors interpret the law more conservatively than the Oireachtas intends, for fear of prosecution. It also raises the prospect of ‘stings’ by anti-abortion activists, which may make service providers feel vulnerable to prosecution.”

The paper was co-written by Ms Enright, Professor Fiona de Londras, of the University of Birmingham, Dr Ruth Fletcher of Queen Mary and Dr Vicky Conway of Dublin City University.

The authors also say that exclusion zones are needed to protect healthcare providers and pregnant women from protest or interference with services.

The legislation proposes a three-day waiting period between a woman being granted access to an abortion pill and being prescribed it. The authors say that this should be removed. “Waiting periods do not necessarily function as periods for reflection, but exacerbate stress in abortion decision-making,” they say.

More than 66 per cent of voters backed repeal of the Eighth Amendment in the referendum in May.

Author: Jennifer Bray, Ireland Deputy Political Editor
Source: The Times