Documents from the Republic of Ireland's health department show that abortion services are limited at nine of the country's 19 maternity hospitals, in part due to conscientious objectors.
In a May 2018 referendum, Irish voters repealed a constitutional amendment recognizing the right to life of unborn children and equal to mothers' right to life. Legislators then enacted legislation allowing legal abortion.
Ireland now permit medical abortions to be performed by general practitioners through nine weeks of pregnancy. Hospitals are allowed to perform surgical abortions through 12 weeks. After 12 weeks, abortions may be performed in “exceptional circumstances.”
The law permits medical professionals who conscientiously object to abortion to refrain from participation in the procedure; however, doctors who object to abortion must refer women to doctors who will perform them.
A statement from the Department of Health, obtained by TheJournal.ie, says that “the HSE [Health Service Executive] has advised that where conscientious objection has arisen in relation to the provision of termination of pregnancy services, hospital groups are working with the hospitals in question to find an appropriate solution.”
Of the nine maternity hospitals that do not offer full abortion services, five are due to to “operational issues”, and four are related to conscientious objection and recruitment, according to an April update sent to the national health department.
Some of the hospitals are small, and have argued that abortion provision there would be unnecessarily expensive.
South Tipperary General Hospital in Clonmel, about 30 miles south of Thurles, has “the smallest number of births in the country (900 a year) and maternity services represent a small part of its activities; to establish a service in the hospital will require dedicated clinics, which may have little or no demand”, according to one of the documents.
The HSE added that abortion provision at South Tipperary “would not represent optimal use of scarce resources given the proximity of STGH to other hospitals providing the service.”
The health department has said it is “extremely disappointed that, at this stage, there are still only 10 hospitals providing full ToP (termination of pregnancy) services”.
“From the outset the Minister and the Department have been very clear that government policy is to normalize ToP service provision within our maternity hospitals and that services will be provided from all 19 maternity hospitals,” the Department of Health stated.
“In that context, it is not acceptable that the NWIHP [National Women & Infants Health Programme] should seek to defer introduction of the service on the basis of low demand or because of sufficient regional coverage or, indeed, because of preference to provide services on a networked basis.”
Dr. Trevor Hayes, a consultant obstetrician/gynecologist at St. Luke’s General Hospital in Kilkenny, maintained at a July 6 pro-life rally in Dublin that health minister Simon Harris is “obsessing with abortion” and is “trying to bully good men and women to get involved in their abortion against their conscience.”
Continued pressure to back abortion would force doctors, nurses and other medical professionals out of medicine and add to “the staffing crisis already crippling the health service,” Hayes predicted.
Hayes is one of several consultant colleagues at St. Luke's who have told management they would not perform abortions. He told that rally that abortion is “a procedure that helps no one and takes the life of the child ... Abortion is not life-saving, it’s life-ending. It’s not health care, and no amount of spin can make it health care.”
The health department's documents show that “it is unlikely” that abortion service will begin at St. Luke's General Hospital in 2019.
In May, the Irish bishops' conference objected to job requirements mandating that certain consultant doctors be willing to participate in abortions, saying the country’s abortion law had promised to safeguard conscience rights for medical professionals.
An advertisement for two consultants, for obstetrics/gynecology and anesthesia, at the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin says applicants must be willing to participate in abortions.
“This precondition runs totally counter to a doctor’s constitutional and human right to freedom of conscience,” said the bishops.
The bishops’ conference said such preconditions may rule out the best possible person for the job by eliminating candidates solely because they are unwilling to perform abortions.
“A doctor who is eminently qualified to work as a consultant in these fields is denied employment in these roles because of his/her conscience,” said the bishops.
“Doctors who are pro-life and who may have spent over a decade training in these areas and who may otherwise be the best candidate for these positions are now advised that, should they apply, they would not be eligible for consideration," they said.
A spokesman for the National Maternity Hospital argued that the specific posts were funded by the HSE for the purpose of abortions.
“They are therefore for individuals willing to contribute to the provision of these services. Other past and future posts are not affected. The conscientious objection guidelines for staff in both hospitals remain unchanged,” the spokesman said, according to RTE.
At least 640 general practitioners in Ireland signed a petition in November objecting to the new obligation of referring patients to other doctors for abortions.
The majority of the country's 2,500 GPs are unwilling to perform abortions. Only between 4 and 6 percent of GPs have said they would participate in the procedure.
At the July 6 All Ireland Rally for Life, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, said: “I march today because I believe it remains as important as ever to affirm the sanctity of all human life. The direct and intentional taking of the life of any innocent human being is always gravely wrong – we must avoid becoming desensitized to the value of every human life.”
He called for more help for vulnerable women, for mothers and fathers who are in crisis, and for “parents who feel that they have made the wrong choice in having an abortion.”