GPs want opt-out on abortion to be protected in law

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) has asked Simon Harris, the health minister, to establish an early registration system for doctors who conscientiously object to abortion. It also wants Harris to broaden the category of care-providers to which objecting doctors can refer pregnant women and girls.

Following the referendum in May, some doctors who were opposed to removing the constitutional ban on abortion said they wanted to be protected from prosecution if they refused to refer women to GPs willing to perform terminations.

The IHREC has made a submission on the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018 which Harris is to introduce in the Dail this week. The bill states there is no obligation for “a medical practitioner, nurse or midwife [to] carry out, or to participate in carrying out, a termination of pregnancy” but those with conscientious objections must make “arrangements for the transfer of care of the pregnant woman concerned”.

The commission wants Harris to provide for referral to other professionals, not just doctors, and to underpin legislation with regulatory guidelines “for expeditious transfer of care”.

Its submission refers to a recent collective complaint [about access to abortion] against Italy, where many medical practitioners were exercising the right to conscientiously object to carrying out the termination of pregnancies, made to the Council of Europe committee on social rights.

The committee ruled that abortion services must be organised to ensure patients’ needs are met, particularly for time-sensitive procedures such as abortion.

The IHREC says “provision for advance declaration and registration of conscientious objection by medical practitioners may assist medical institutions to effectively plan for, and accommodate, conscientious objection and identify gaps in effective access to services”.

Emily Logan, the chief commissioner of IHREC, said: “The right to conscientious objection needs to be effectively balanced with women’s and girls’ rights to legal medical care, and that access to a termination of pregnancy should not be determined by what part of the country you live in.”

Peter Fitzpatrick, a Fine Gael TD for Louth, is expected to vote against the bill. He would not comment on his voting intentions last week but confirmed he would be making an announcement about his political future on Tuesday, when he is expected to redesignate himself as an independent TD.

He is likely to be asked by independent TDs Mattie McGrath and Michael Collins to join their planned new “pro-life, pro-rural Ireland” party, but sources close to the TD said he would not be interested.

The former Louth football manager did not allow his name to go before Fine Gael’s selection convention last week. Sitting TD Fergus O’Dowd and councillor John McGahon were chosen as the party’s candidates for the next general election.