Anti-abortion doctors petition Irish government ahead of abortion bill debate

As lawmakers prepared to debate a bill Thursday to introduce abortion services in Ireland, a group of anti-abortion doctors has petitioned the government to allow them to exercise their conscientious objection in full.

Under the proposed abortion legislation, the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018, doctors who do not wish to perform abortions will be able to opt out of providing abortion services themselves but must provide patients with a referral to a doctor who will.

The group, Doctors for Freedom of Conscience, has said that “forcing a doctor to make a referral for an abortion against their conscience is simply wrong.”

At a meeting with lawmakers in the seat of the Oireachtas, or legislature, last week, group member Dr. Niall Maguire said it was his role to “provide support and positive alternatives to abortion,” adding that the proposed law would “force us to set in motion a procedure we believe to be harmful.”

The petition is the latest in a series of objections put forward by anti-abortion activists following Ireland’s historic referendum on abortion, which passed by a landslide earlier this year.

In May, Ireland voted 66.4% to 33.6% to repeal the Eighth Amendment, an effective ban on abortion barring a “real and substantial risk” to the mother’s life. Last month, President Michael D. Higgins formally removed that amendment from the constitution.

Now, lawmakers will debate how to regulate abortion services in the country. Under the proposed bill, terminations will be provided “on demand” up to the 12th week of pregnancy, and later in cases where there is a risk to the mother’s life or the fetus is not expected to survive.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris have said they expect abortion services to be in place by early next year, with terminations available free of charge.

While some anti-abortion activists continue their campaign against the changes, many abortion-rights activists say the legislation isn’t liberal enough.

The bill provides for a three-day waiting period for those seeking terminations within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Doctors for Choice, a nationwide alliance of doctors, has called the 72-hour waiting period unnecessary and without medical reason.

Dr. Mary Favier, vice president of the Irish College of General Practitioners and a founding member of Doctors for Choice, called the decision a “legal, societal decision,” and noted that mandatory waiting periods have been “discouraged” by the World Health Organization.

Last month a parliamentary health committee suggested removing the clause from the legislation. The Health Minister said that amendments to the bill would not be accepted.

The lower house of the Irish parliament, or Dáil, begins debating the bill Thursday.