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Ireland: first country to allow telemedicine for abortion due to Covid-19 pandemic

Photo: Minister for Health Simon Harris

The article opens: “Doctors and women’s groups are concerned that timely access to abortion services could be compromised during the coronavirus outbreak.”

Women’s groups said: “The legal requirement that a woman seeking an early medical abortion (before 12 weeks) must make two GP visits, three days apart, is “irreconcilable” with current public health advice to avoid all but essential travel”.

With some doctors reporting “difficulties” providing abortion services, women’s health organisations said the Minister for Health must provide direction to allow consultations over the phone. They said travel for an abortion after 12 weeks [to the UK mainly] must be classified as “essential travel” during the crisis as well. In a letter to the Minister, six organisations, including the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) and the National Traveller Women’s Forum, called for “urgent measures”.

“Mandating two face-to-face appointments is not in alignment with government policy to restrict travel and social interactions,” they wrote. “It poses risks to patients and staff of transmitting COVID-19 and reduces availability of providers, as it precludes those providers who are self-isolating but well from providing the service whilst working remotely.”

They call for “legislative or other measures to enable abortion services to continue during the COVID-19 outbreak” and to “make provision for remote consultation in accordance with public health guidance and home administration of both abortion medications (mifepristone and misoprostol)”.

Unlike other health ministers we can name, such as UK Secretary of State Matt Hancock, who announced earlier this week that this could also happen in the UK – and then did a U-turn some hours later and withdrew the policy change after it had gone around the world – Simon Harris took the point and went into action.

Congratulations to Simon Harris, to the abortion providers and the abortion rights movement of Ireland for implementing this in a timely way. As far as we know, they are the first country to do so in response to the pandemic.

Mr Harris reported that health officials and the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) were “working together with some urgency to revise the model of care for termination of pregnancy services” so that “only …for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic… remote consultation with a medical practitioner will be permissible”.

OK, for the moment, only for the duration of the pandemic… but a great start, critical for women’s and doctors’ health during this time. [Editor’s note: Maybe by the time the pandemic ends, it will be clear that it was an idea whose time has come anyway, and not just for abortions…

I thought that was it, but glancing through this Twitter feed #COVID19ireland, I found a conversation that began with a post from Paul O’Donoghue, reporter for the TimesIE that says:  “…this may get a bit lost. But the government has just nationalised the health service. All private hospital staff are now working for the Health & Safety Executive. That. Is. Extraordinary.” (24 March 2020) Further posts try to clarify that this is temporary, or that it may just be they are contracting their services, not taking them over.. and more possible explanations. But one way or the other, it’s extraordinary.]

SOURCES: Irish Times, by Kitty Harris, 27 March 2020. Photo: PA ; #COVID19ireland