"I thank Deputies Bríd Smith, O’Reilly and Shortall for raising this issue. I agree with them and, more importantly, so do many practitioners providing services to women in crisis. We have come a long way in this House working together on these issues. We should be ensuring that we continue to protect the rights of women during this time of a global pandemic.
I note that submissions were made on this Bill on the issue of termination of pregnancy. I understand and share the Deputies' concerns. In fact, I believe we are all largely in agreement on the principles involved. We all want to ensure that women can continue to access termination of pregnancy during the exceptional circumstances brought about by Covid-19.
Section 12 of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 deals with termination of early pregnancy. It provides that a termination of pregnancy may be carried out "where, having examined the pregnant woman, he or she is of the reasonable opinion formed in good faith that the pregnancy concerned has not exceeded 12 weeks of pregnancy". The Act, however, does not prescribe the actions or clinical aspects of the medical practitioner's examination of the woman. As it is set out in section 12, the phrase "having examined" does not exclude the possibility of the examination being carried out by other means, for example, by telemedicine or video conference.
The operation of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 is underpinned by the model of care. Consequently, the Act is read alongside the model of care, or that is what our doctors do, which was developed by the Department of Health and the HSE in advance of this service coming into operation on 1 January last year. In usual time, the requirement the requirement for the medical practitioner to examine the pregnant woman does mean that the woman will usually attend the surgery or clinical setting to have a face-to-face consultation with her doctor. This is the same as for any other health service in the normal course of medical practice. A doctor will usually meet a patient in person before prescribing a course of action. Termination of pregnancy is and should be no different from any other health service in this way. In this current situation, however, social distancing, reducing contacts and reducing the burden on medical practitioners is absolutely paramount. We are considering different operational procedures in a range of areas, not least dealing with Covid-19.
In light of these considerations I want to assure the Deputies, the House, the women of Ireland, and indeed, the medical practitioners working in this area, that my officials and the HSE are working with some urgency to revise the model of care for termination of pregnancy services. The revised model of care will apply only for the duration of the Covid-19 public health emergency and it will ensure that, where necessary for the purposes of terminations under section 12 of the Act, remote consultation with a medical practitioner will be permissible. For this reason, and based on my legal advice, I am satisfied that including remote consultation in the model of care at this time will ensure that medical practitioners can continue to deliver a safe service, while also reducing social contact and thus the risk to a woman's health, as well as to that of the doctor and other patients and reducing the burden on our medical practitioners at an extraordinarily busy time. It is important, however, that the operation of the service remains true to the legislation enacted by the last Oireachtas in 2018. This was, after all, based on the referendum put to the people in May 2018 and to which they agreed. I am not proposing to make any amendments to the Act but I am reassured that the revised model of care will ensure that the service will be safely delivered during this time of Covid-19."
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