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Abortion debate: All publicly funded hospitals to provide legal health services, says Health Minister

All publicly funded hospitals will be expected to provide legal health services, including women’s health services, says Health Minister Simon Harris.

He was responding to reports that Catholic hospitals could break the law and refuse to offer abortions in all circumstances under a code of ethics by the Irish Catholic Bishops.

“It is the minister for health’s clear view that health service providers have a statutory responsibility to comply with the provisions of health legislation,” stated his department yesterday.

In a tweet, Mr Harris wrote: “Conscientious objection is for individuals, not institutions.”

Mr Harris established a group to examine how voluntary providers interact with the health service. It is due to report shortly.

Representatives from the Council for Healthcare of the Irish Bishops’ Conference provided a copy of their code of ethical standards for healthcare when they met the group earlier this month.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said religious bodies were entitled to produce their ethical guidelines, but stressed that the Medical Council’s guidelines were the ones that should be followed in publicly funded hospitals.

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall said “clear assurances” were needed that all publicly funded hospitals, including those connected to religious orders, would provide all legal healthcare services, including abortion services.

Ms Shortall said Mr Varadkar had stated that provision would be made for individual doctors to opt out of offering abortions services on conscientious grounds, and to refer patients to another clinician.

 “However, there can be no ambiguity about the fact that such conscience clauses cannot apply to entire hospitals.”

 

According to a report in The Times Ireland edition, guidelines by the Irish Catholic Bishops for the 20 main hospitals connected with religious orders include a ban on most assisted reproduction procedures and that the few procedures allowed would not be given to LGBT couples or unmarried women.

The code of ethical standards for healthcare also bans contraception, crisis pregnancy counselling with information on abortion, and counselling for families going through a fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis that lists termination as an option.

According to the newspaper, the document also questions the ethics of tests during pregnancy that might identify a fatal foetal abnormality and lead to the “immoral act” of abortion.

A number of publicly funded hospitals are under Catholic ownership or governance, including St Vincent’s and the Mater hospital in Dublin.

Ms Shortall said she wants Mr Harris to explain why there had been such a long delay in delivering on the commitment to ensure that the new national maternity hospital at St Vincent’s University Hospital campus in Dublin remained in full public ownership.

A spokesperson for St Vincent’s Healthcare Group said all procedures that are legal in Ireland are available in their hospitals and would be available in the new maternity hospital.

“Patient care is delivered without religious, ethnic, or other distinction and any medical procedure which is in accordance with the laws of the land can be carried out in hospitals in the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group,” said the spokesperson.

The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference did not respond when asked to comment on the reports.