January 3, 2019 / 6:41 PM / 7 months ago

Concerns over gaps in care as abortion services begin in Ireland

LONDON, Jan 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women seeking abortions in Ireland may not get comprehensive care as health services struggle to meet demand for the fast-tracked launch of the service, a national group representing family doctors said on Thursday.

Ireland lifted tight restrictions on abortion from January 1, but fewer than 200 family doctors – about 5 percent of the total – have signed up to take part.

Many are holding back due to lack of clarity over the new system and concerns over “patchy” availability of services such as scans in hospitals, said the National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP).

“There is a huge amount of uncertainty among GPs,” NAGP president Maitiu O’Tuathail told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“What we have is a situation where we don’t have the best and safest service we possibly could have, and I think if we had waited, that possibly would have been the case.”

Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) said a lot of work had taken place to prepare for the launch and more doctors were joining every day.

“We are satisfied that there is already a good geographic spread of GPs taking part, enough to meet the needs of people who may need to access the service,” said a spokesman.

Ireland voted by a landslide in a May referendum to overturn highly restrictive laws on abortion that for decades had forced about 3,000 women to travel to Britain each year for terminations they could not legally have in their own country.

Under the new laws, women can have abortions if they are up to 12 weeks pregnant, or later where the unborn child has a terminal condition or the pregnancy poses a serious risk to the health of the mother.

A new helpline was also set up to help women seeking advice on unplanned pregnancies, with the HSE reporting it had received “a steady stream of calls” since it opened on January 1.

Campaigners have argued the current laws are still too restrictive, criticising a three-day “cooling off” period required by the law and the 12-week time limit on terminations.

Mara Clarke, founder of the Abortion Support Network which helps women in Ireland obtain abortions abroad, said between 600 and 700 women were expected to have to travel to Britain for an abortion in 2019 because they were more than 12 weeks pregnant.

“Any person who can get an abortion in Ireland without having to get on a plane or a boat is a victory, but this law is going to leave a lot of people behind,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The true test is going to be next year how many women have travelled to UK clinics and given Irish addresses in comparison with years past and how many women are still getting safe but illegal early medical abortion pills from the internet." (Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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