Conscientious objection to abortion remains strong in Irish hospitals

Conscientious objection to abortion is widespread among health care professionals working in Irish hospitals. This reality is highlighted in a recent paper by a group of pro-choice doctors. It admits that pro-life conscientious objectors were initially a challenge to establishing “abortion services” and still are a persistent barrier to expanding them.

The paper is based on about 60 in-depth interviews with patients and health professionals. The interviews make clear that the most common reason for reluctance to participate in abortion is an ethical objection. Conscientious objection (CO) “was present to varying degrees in all hospitals. CO was an issue among consultants and midwives but also among other staff such as operating theatre nurses, unit nurses, and anesthesiologists”. (p. 5)

Some respondents said that, at least initially, they were afraid of protests taking place outside of their hospitals or damaging their careers through an association with abortion. They didn’t want to be seen as “full-time terminators”.

The paper acknowledges that “none of the providers mentioned actually feeling personally stigmatised. Most providers said protests were minimal where they did occur, and quickly dissipated after the initial implementation period”. (pp. 5-6)

Those who want to impose “safe zones” around hospitals often mention harassment (which the Gardai already have the powers to deal with) but this paper effectively rebukes those false allegations.

Even inside the hospital, opposition to abortion from other staff members did not translate into hostility towards those who offer it.

“Despite initial fears, no interviewees mentioned personal experiences with being stigmatised for providing abortion” (p. 7), notes the paper.

The initial fear of being overwhelmed by the number of cases was unjustified, it says. “The number of abortion patients has been lower than expected, thus allowing hospitals to meet the demand.” (p. 7). (This would be largely down to the fact that the great majority of abortions are chemically induced via the abortion pill and not surgically performed).

Pro-choice campaigners complain that a number of Irish hospitals do not offer abortions, but the article acknowledges that there is little need for more services.

“Regardless of the reasons why abortion services were not introduced at some hospitals, respondents from non-providing hospitals felt that there is little incentive to introduce services now as the demand is being met by nearby hospitals.” (p. 8)

Nonetheless, the paper advises for hospitals with a high level of conscientious objectors “to recruit consultants specifically to perform terminations of pregnancies, an approach which was helpful in some hospitals.” (p. 5)

This would be highly problematic, and possibly illegal, as new recruits would be discriminated against because of their personal beliefs.

One of the respondents, a midwife, openly exposed the doublespeak she employs to obfuscate the reality of abortion. “… if you go into a lady with a miscarriage, it’s her baby. You go into a lady with a termination, it’s her fetus”. (p. 6) This doublespeak has always been common among pro-choice activists, but it is frightening to think that now midwives and doctors refer to the same unborn child differently, depending on whether the child is wanted or not.

The paper admits that the opposition to abortion among health care professionals is solid.

“Abortion care remains peripheral and marginalised at some hospitals” (p. 10) Even some doctors who offer abortion pills are not happy with providing surgical abortion, as they considered it a more active form of participation.

Different degrees of reluctance, varying from uneasiness with the most extreme termination methods up to total opposition, prove that abortion remains contentious and problematic among Irish health care professionals.