Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said the new abortion service has to develop and evolve.

He was responding to a question from the Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger during Leaders' Questions.

Mr Varadkar said while the service may not be up to scratch for some women and patients now, improvements will be made as it develops.

Ms Coppinger said there were worrying signs that women who receive foetal diagnoses are going to the UK for terminations. 

Using Dáil privilege, she raised the case of a woman who she said had a scan in Portiuncula Hospital in Co Galway, who was told that she had a nuchal translucency with fluid around the neck of 8-9mm, and possible Edward's Syndrome. 

Ms Coppinger said the woman was told there was only 15% chance of delivery and the baby might live an hour. He said the doctor told the woman they could not do anything because she was over 12 weeks’ pregnant.

Ms Coppinger said the woman, who she named 'Mary', told her that the staff "treated her like a leper" and that she was handed the names of three hospitals in England.

The Dáil was told that 'Mary' rang the Health Service Executive and was directed to Galway University Hospital, where she was told by the doctor on arrival "nobody here to see you, you won't get to the second trimester".

Ms Coppinger said at that stage 'Mary' had had enough and within hours had made an appointment to go to England.

She put it to the Taoiseach that women voted last May not knowing they would be in such a situation.

The Taoiseach said fatal and severe abnormalities were discussed in the Oireachtas and he pointed out that Ms Coppinger was involved in those debates.

Mr Varadkar said it was decided that disability would not be grounds for terminations after 12 weeks. 

He said he did not want to comment on individual cases, because he was aware that the diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality is difficult for anyone and it would be inappropriate to comment on a case when he did not know the individual facts.

Ms Coppinger said politicians "chickened out" on the question of severe abnormalities and accused the Taoiseach of conflating her first question with the issue of disability. 

She called for a fully secular hospital system where there "isn't a culture that sends people on their way" and one where, she said, the Catholic Church would not influence medical matters.

She also called for a review of the legislation.

The Taoiseach said there was an in-built mechanism in the legislation for a review. 

He said the service was new and had to develop and evolve. 

"Unfortunately it may not be up to scratch for some women and patients now, but we'll see that it improves as it is developed", he said.

He took issue with Ms Coppinger when she spoke about politicians chickening out. 

"We didn't chicken out", he said, pointing out that after 12 weeks there would have to be a risk to the health of the woman, a risk to her life or a fatal foetal abnormality.

He said: "It's not that we chickened out, we decided as a house and we said during the referendum campaign when we asked people to vote yes, at least I did, that we would not allow disability to be grounds for terminations after 12 weeks."

Last week, RTÉ News put a query to the Saolta University Group, which comprises of hospitals in the west.

Saolta was asked if Portiuncula Hospital is conducting terminations beyond 12-weeks for fatal foetal abnormalities and if not, are women referred from there to Galway University Hospital.

In a statement this evening, Saolta said all maternity hospitals are providing the following services:

  • Managing complications arising from termination.
  • Providing appropriate care and supervision for women following a diagnosis of fatal foetal  abnormality, and referral to the appropriate tertiary unit.
  • Providing appropriate care and supervision in cases where maternal health/life is at risk, and referral to the appropriate tertiary hospital, as appropriate.