New NI abortion services will not be affected by staff refusal to perform procedure, a Belfast doctor claims

A senior doctor working in Belfast said she does not believe abortion services in Northern Ireland will be affected by a large group of staff refusing to carry out the procedures.

It comes after Northern Ireland’s Foreign Secretary announced that full abortion services will be formally set up and confirmed that he has written to the Department of Health to get the services up and running.

On Friday, Chris Heaton-Harris said he expected services to become available in the coming months.

Dr. Laura McLaughlin, a consultant obstetrician and gynecologist who co-founded Doctors for Choice NI, said she doesn’t expect the services to be developed by April next year, saying the move is “long overdue”.

“We are happy with it. It’s a shame it has to come through the Secretary of State where it came from, but at this stage the money is coming to us and we’re delighted it’s here,” she told BBC NI’s Sunday Politics.

“We would have preferred it to come from the support of our Department of Health. This is a service that women have long waited for and that we as health professionals have waited for. We will now be able to do our job properly, with funding to support us.

Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were liberalized in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when the Stormont power-sharing government had collapsed.

While individual health funds have since offered limited services on an ad hoc basis, the Northern Ireland Department of Health has never centrally mandated the rollout of full services due to a political deadlock at Stormont.

It also empowered the Secretary of State to intervene and commission the services himself if the devolved Health Minister failed to do so.

Mr Heaton-Harris said the formal commissioning would allow health and social care trusts to recruit and train staff in the coming months.

In May 2021, the government stepped in and parliament passed regulations whereby the Ministry of Health no longer had to seek approval from the wider executive branch to commission the services.

While there is reserved funding, Dr. McLaughlin told BBC NI that future funding arrangements remain “uncertain” beyond the next few years.

She also believes that staff working in the service will become more involved and put aside any reservations when dealing face-to-face with people wanting an abortion.

“We work with all employees. We want to prevent employees from potentially feeling uncomfortable by participating in the service against their views,” she added.

“I don’t think we will be short of staff. We work on the nudge theory, that over time people see the customers who are using the service, why they are using the service, that many customers are using this service for desired pregnancies, and they’re placed in a position where they can see them never happen.

“We have seen staff come on board to date where they may not have been involved with the service to begin with.

“Some things need to be ironed out. It’s a completely new service being developed from scratch and something that has never been done here in Northern Ireland.

“We have been given a time frame of full surgical services by April 2023. It would be great if that is the case. By then we will have trained clinicians. There are many trajectories that need to be developed, or will be developed in the next six months, I don’t think so.”

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