GP out-of-hours surgeries to be 'exempt from abortions'

Doctors warn January rollout 'too rushed', but minister 'won't waiver'

Meetings: Simon Harris plans to roll our services from January

Eilish O'Regan

Women will not be able to secure a medical abortion from GP out-of-hours surgeries, the Irish Independent has learned.

The GP service, which provides medical cover from 6pm to 8am, has become the first port of call for an increasing number of patients due to a shortage of doctors.

Dr Ken Egan, chairman of the National Association of GP Co-ops, said a woman seeking an abortion would not be classified as an emergency which is the service out-of-hours doctors provide.

However, he said they will treat women who have had an abortion and develop complications.

"We wrote to the Irish College of General Practitioners and it was accepted that out-of-hours would be exempt," he said.

The revelation comes as Health Minister Simon Harris insisted the health service will be ready to roll out abortion services from January despite several GPs and obstetricians warning it is too rushed, leaving women at risk of ending with an unsafe terminations.

He is to hold meetings with medical bodies next week in a bid to alleviate concerns.

A spokeswoman for the minister said: "It remains the minister's absolute commitment to bring in services in January. As referenced by adviser Dr Peter Boylan, delays would result in more women having to travel."

He accepted doctors are raising genuine concerns and is committed to working with them to address the issues.

"But his commitment will not waiver," she said.

The Institute of Obstetricians confirmed yesterday it has received a signed petition from a large number of obstetricians to hold an extraordinary general meeting.

It will not take place for a month after they submit a motion related to implementation of the service, including issues of safety.

An internal poll of 230 family doctors, carried out by the GP, the online resource for GPs in Ireland, found that 84pc felt the January 1 deadline should be pushed out.

Although most of the focus has been on GPs up to now, it has emerged many doctors in maternity hospitals, particularly those outside of Dublin, feel they are lacking resources and staff to deliver the service from January.

Niall Behan, chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA), which will be one of the main centres for medical abortion, said: "The IFPA is committed to providing abortion care at our clinics as soon as possible.

"We're working constantly on care protocols, internal training, patient information and procedures.

"The target of January 1 creates enormous challenges because there are still a number of outstanding issues.

"The IFPA is working with the Department of Health and the HSE to resolve these.

"It is absolutely imperative women get high-quality care. This has to be done right, not rushed."

Alison Begas, of the Dublin Well Woman Centre, which will also be a major provider, said it was not possible to commit to a start-up date now.

But she was hopeful outstanding issues can be resolved, including concerns over access to ultrasound.

"There needs to be quick and easy access to ultrasound and a central booking system," she said.

Retired obstetrician Dr Boylan, who is advising on preparation, said he believes the service can start in January.

The legislation returns to the Seanad for debate next week.