Northern Ireland

Republic's new abortion service in 'chaos' four weeks after it was set up

Emma Campbell from Alliance 4 Choice at a pro-choice rally in Belfast. Picture by Declan Roughan
Emma Campbell from Alliance 4 Choice at a pro-choice rally in Belfast. Picture by Declan Roughan

CAMPAIGNERS on both sides of the abortion debate have highlighted 'chaos' in the Republic's new terminations service - almost a month after it was established.

Pro-choice activists have criticised a lack of clear information about how women from the north can access abortions in the Republic.

Emma Campbell from Alliance 4 Choice said anecdotal evidence suggested women from Northern Ireland had contacted the MyOptions helpline, which advises how to access an abortion, but she was not aware of anyone who had had the procedure in the Republic.

Abortion on demand remains illegal in Northern Ireland. However, since the start of this year abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy are legal in the Republic.

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Ms Campbell said confusion over the cost of the procedure in the Republic for northern women, delays in seeing a GP and the mandatory three-day 'cooling off' period before a termination can take place have meant that women are continuing to travel to Britain for abortions.

Although the service is free for women from the Republic, the Health Service Executive (HSE) said women from north of the border will have to pay.

The procedure is not covered under the European Health Insurance Card.

There is also no fixed cost for a termination. The Irish Family Planning Association has said it will charge €450 plus extra for any scans or blood tests.

Terminations can also be accessed through one of 240 GPs across the Republic who have signed a contract to provide the service.

The HSE previously said if a woman from the north wants to have a termination through a GP in the Republic, that GP will "decide on the cost of the service".

Nine hospitals, including Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Drogheda, Co Louth, and the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, have also signed up to provide terminations.

The HSE was asked how much it would cost a woman from the north to have a termination in hospital. However, a spokeswoman did not give a set figure and instead pointed to a link on the HSE's website which stated the cost of different hospital stays.

"People not ordinarily resident in the Republic of Ireland or people who do not have an identifier (PPSN or related) may access TOP (termination of pregnancy) services in Ireland but will do so in a private capacity, which means they may be liable to GP charges as a private patient and, if necessary, the normal hospital charges relating to a private patient attending a public or voluntary hospital," she said.

Ms Campbell said she understood hospitals were referring women to the MyOptions helpline.

"We have been told that if you just turn up to a maternity unit they will send you away. You have to go through the MyOptions helpline," she said.

She said women were having to wait for an initial GP appointment - which pushed them closer to the 12-week limit.

"We would still recommend that women travel to Britain where abortions are free," she said.

Terminations became legal in the Republic from January 1 following a landmark referendum on the issue last year.

Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland campaigns manager for Amnesty UK, said: "There have been problems around the introduction of abortion services in Ireland which have made it difficult for women from Northern Ireland to access the healthcare service".

"Proper pathways to abortion services still have not been established, and the cost of services is considerable and varies – in some cases it is cheaper for women to travel to clinics in England," she said.

"These barriers preventing women from accessing the services must be removed.

"The Irish and UK Governments should be working closely together to ensure that women in Northern Ireland can access free, safe and legal abortion services in Ireland.

"The steep costs must be alleviated and sufficient support must be put in place so women have the information and help they need. It is vital that medical professionals have clear guidance from the Department of Health on this."

Sinn Féin MLA Megan Fearon said she had written to the Republic's health minister Simon Harris to seek clarification after The Irish News first reported that women from the north could be charged €450 for a termination.

"I asked the minister about the rationale of why women in Derry should be treated differently from women in Kerry," she said.

"The minister has so far failed to respond to my attempt to clarify this issue but I will continue to pursue this issue as the Irish government must ensure that women in the north are not left behind."

Bernie Smyth, from anti-abortion group Precious Life, said the system for terminations in the Republic was "in chaos".

"I have spoken to our counterparts in the south and there is no clear pathway for women accessing abortions," she said.

"We would welcome that."

Ms Smyth said she was concerned that the MyOptions helpline was not the best option for women who are experiencing a crisis pregnancy.

"We would be concerned that if a woman does go to a GP in the south they will not have access to her medical records," she said. "She could have a medical condition the GP is not aware of.

"It's in the best interests of women that they do not access abortions in the south."

Ms Smyth said she was also concerned that the MyOptions helpline was "being widely advertised on Facebook".

She said women should also be made aware that they can access the pro-life Stanton Healthcare Centre in Belfast.

"Women need options," she said.