A Northern Ireland doctor opposed to abortion said he collected the signatures of 911 health care professionals in the region who will refuse to perform abortions under a new measure that legalized the procedure.
Dr. Andrew Cupples, a general physician in Northern Ireland, collected the signatures for a letter he sent to the Northern Ireland Secretary last month. The letter, signed by doctors, nurses and midwives, stated their opposition to the new abortion laws and called for strong conscientious objection protections that would ensure that those opposed to abortion may opt out of performing or assisting with the procedure, The Independent reported.
“Hundreds of healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland will refuse to be involved in abortion services. There are even people who are planning to walk away from the healthcare service if they are forced to participate in abortion services,” Cupples told The Independent.
“There are also people in obstetrics and gynecology and midwives who are worried if they do not agree to be trained in abortion they could be forced to do so or reprimanded by their employers or a professional body,” he said.
Earlier this week, Northern Ireland’s devolved legislature failed to block changes to their abortion and gay marriage laws passed by the British Parliament, which has the authority to govern the area in the absence of a functioning local assembly.
A last-ditch effort to recall Northern Ireland’s assembly and block the new laws did not gain necessary cross-party support, and as a result, abortion and same-sex marriage are now legal in Northern Ireland.
Previously, abortion had only been permissible in the region in cases in which the mother’s life was in danger, or if there was serious risk of permanent damage to her physical or mental health if she brought her pregnancy to term.
Abortion has been legal in the rest of the UK up to 24 weeks since 1967. Pressure to legalize abortion in Northern Ireland increased after a 2018 referendum legalized abortion in the Republic of Ireland. The law in the Republic of Ireland 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.
Documents from the Republic of Ireland's health department earlier this year showed that abortion services are limited at nine of the country's 19 maternity hospitals, in part due to conscientious objectors.
At least 640 general practitioners in Ireland signed a petition last November objecting to the new obligation of referring patients to other doctors for abortions.
The majority of the Republic of Ireland’s 2,500 GPs are unwilling to perform abortions. Only between 4-6% of GPs have said they would participate in the procedure.
Cupples told The Independent that he was most worried for midwives and other professionals who have “no protection” under the new abortion law in Northern Ireland.
Guidelines issued by Britain’s Parliament to health care professionals in Northern Ireland regarding the new abortion regulations state that “anyone who has a conscientious objection to abortion may want to raise this with their employer,” the BBC reported.
They also note that in England and Wales, medical professionals may object to participating in an abortion in a “hands on” capacity but they are still required to participate in any related administrative or health care tasks.
These guidelines apply until the end of March, by which time a 12-week public consultation will have concluded and the Northern Ireland government will have issued official protocols for health care professionals regarding abortion in the region.