I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for coming into the House.
Access to Contraception: Motion
“That Seanad Eireann:
- our nation has taken a significant step forward by repealing the Eighth Amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann, thereby enabling people in this State to access abortion care;
- the Programme for Government commits to the rolling out on a phased basis of free contraceptive care, commencing with women and girls aged between 17 and 25;
- a key recommendation of the Report of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution is that free contraception be rolled out in Ireland. In its final report, the Report of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution recommended ‘the introduction of a scheme for the provision of the most effective method of contraception, free of charge and having regard to personal circumstances, to all people who wish to avail of them within the State’;
- the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution heard evidence of a survey of women who had contacted an online abortion provider before access to abortion was made available in Ireland; the survey found that 44 per cent had not used contraceptives, while a worrying 56 per cent used a form of contraception that failed;
- this finding has now been further supported by a recent report from the Dublin Well Woman Centre which demonstrated that 51 per cent of women aged 17 to 45 have had sexual intercourse without using contraception;
- while contraceptives are free under the medical card the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution reported that for those who fell slightly short of qualification for the medical card the costs were prohibitive;
- 18 per cent of those surveyed by the Central Statistics Office in 2010 reported that the cost of contraception is an issue;
- the Irish Contraception and Crisis Pregnancy Study (2010) found that 11 per cent of study participants reported difficulties with access to contraception;
- the Growing Up in Ireland study (Child Cohort 2016), reported that at age 17 to 18, those from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds were less likely to report using contraception (73 per cent), compared to those from more advantaged families (83 per cent), demonstrating a clear cost barrier;
- the Report of the Working Group on Access to Contraception noted that in formulating policy on contraception a number of factors which are not related to cost benefit should be taken into account:
- policy context following the enactment of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018;
- women’s rights;
- the Report of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution found that Irish women availing of abortion services in the United Kingdom did not benefit from post-abortion contraceptive services, which were standard to women in the United Kingdom;
- the introduction of State-funded abortion services in January 2019 did not include the provision of post-abortion contraceptive methods free of charge and the majority of women continue to pay out of pocket for contraception;
- the costs associated with the provision of free access to contraceptives are low; for 17 to 24 year olds the cost is €18-22 million per annum according to the Working Group on Access to Contraception;
- if we are truly a progressive country, we must expand care to all of those who do not wish to become pregnant, as well as supports for those who do, and to all children in the State;
- access to contraception is a matter not only of public health but of women’s rights;
- access to contraception is also a matter of human rights;
- contraceptives have the benefit of enabling individuals to plan the number and spacing of any children they choose to have, reducing unplanned pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases, increasing the uptake of smear tests, and helping in the management of menstrual health conditions;
- cost is a barrier to contraceptive use in Ireland, as laid out by the research;
- not every contraceptive suits every person and, in order to ensure choice, all methods of contraception should be available freely;
- the inclusion of stakeholder engagement in the development of any scheme for access to contraceptives is essential to the success of the initiative;
- the Irish Council for General Practitioners advocates for free and universal access to contraception as a matter of priority for public health;
- the National Women’s Council supports access to free contraception for overall reproductive health;
- the Irish Family Planning Association in advocating for a universal State-funded contraceptive scheme points to the importance of the removal of all barriers, including cost, lack of local access to contraceptive services and poor access to information;
calls on the Government:
- to implement the Programme for Government commitment to roll out free access to contraception to women and girls aged 17 to 25, as a matter of priority;
- to set out a timeline for the development of a scheme for universal free contraception in the lifetime of this Government, in consultation with stakeholders.”
Given the history of the State with regard to women, women are now owed proper healthcare and I am asking that we take the next step today. A huge leap forward was made when we, as a nation, repealed the eighth amendment of the Constitution but if we are truly a progressive country it is time to deal with other aspects of reproductive care and care for children.
I note more announcements today from the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, on additional supports with regard to childcare, which are incredibly welcome and go to the heart of this motion, but we are also looking for supports for those who do not wish to become pregnant.
The history of this issue is that in 2016 we had a Citizens’ Assembly and it found that reproductive healthcare included a right to free access to contraceptives. In 2017, in its final report, the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution recommended the introduction of a scheme for the provision of the most effective method of contraception, free of charge, and having regard to the personal circumstances of all people who wish to avail of it within the State.
In 2018, the then Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, committed to the introduction of universal free contraception and commissioned the Working Group on Access to Contraception.
In 2020, in our programme for Government, Our Shared Future, we committed to, and we, the Green Party, pushed for, the provision of free contraception over a phased period starting with women aged 17 to 25. I commend many of those Senators, particularly women Senators, who have raised this issue since we took our seats in this House. In particular, Senator Clifford-Lee, who I hope will speak in the debate, has raised it with the Minister. What we are looking for is movement on that commitment and on outlining what will now be this phased universal healthcare.
When we talk about free contraception we are talking about it in a number of different contexts. One of those is the one many people will know, that is, with regard to crisis pregnancies. We know that greater use of contraception lowers the rate of termination. That was a frequent point of discussion in the deliberations of both the working group and also the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. France, Italy, Turkey and Portugal have reduced their termination rates by introducing post-abortion free contraceptives. We did not introduce such a measure and now is the opportunity to do that. As a Government, we have committed to that so I ask the Minister to outline his thoughts on that issue.
Crisis pregnancies happen for a number of reasons. One of those is that people are not using contraceptives, which I will address shortly. Another is because people do not have access to contraceptives. A further reason is that people may not feel that they are able to ask for contraceptives. I am thinking of one group in particular, that is, women in situations of domestic abuse, who may not have ready access to the financial provisions to be able to pay for them. In their deliberations on that matter, the members of the working group discussed the fact that the medical card provides access to free contraceptives but despite that, 18% of people said the cost was a barrier.
I spoke to the president of the Union of Students in Ireland today, Lorna Fitzgerald, who told me that there are free healthcare facilities on campus which provide prescriptions free of charge and that the only thing they do not provide free of charge is contraceptives. As a country we have to ask ourselves what the reason is for that. Is that because of our history and the way we have treated women, particularly the topic of sex and menstrual health, through the decades and indeed the centuries?
That brings me to the point of cost as a barrier. In that particular instance it may be that young people do not want to go home and ask their parents for money for reproductive healthcare of any form. Many people in this country do not want to talk about it with anyone, even their partners, but it is also true to say that cost is a barrier.
I was on a Newstalk programme this morning and was challenged on that. The accusation put to me was why should everybody else have to pay for the contraceptives of another person. We know that over time it reduces the cost to the State. We are providing free abortion care so why would we not provide this service as well? In addition, with respect to the facts, A Growing Up in Ireland study from 2016 showed that 17 and 18-year-olds from a lower socioeconomic background reported using contraceptives less than those from a higher socioeconomic background. Clearly, cost is a barrier and we need to address that as a State if we are serous about the well-being of our citizens. It is simply not good enough to say "Just go out and buy it yourself".
Sometimes people say using a condom is very cheap. The roll-out of the national condom distribution service last year is to be commended. However, that is not always the best form of contraception. The pill is not always the best form of contraception. One could pay €300 upfront for some forms of contraceptives but they may be the ones that are the best in the circumstances for the particular women and it is usually women when we talking about that chunk of money. The Irish Family Planning Association has told me that it is incredibly difficult in that a woman may have had abortion care, which is free, and following that be given advice on what is the best contraceptive for her. Even though she may chose a form of contraception she may not want, either because she is prioritising other people within her family or does not have money, she does not want to spend €300 up-front. However, over the lifetime of that contraceptive choice it is a cheaper form of contraceptive. For us as a State, it is not a huge outlay. A spend of €300 over the lifetime of that form of contraception which could be ten years is not a huge outlay. Women often prioritise school books for their children, rent and putting food on the table over the purchase of contraception. They may not be eligible for a medical card but that still does not mean that cost is not a barrier to them. This is a human rights and a women’s rights issue but it is also a right for everyone, male, female and those of all genders. That is why I ask the Minister of State to lay out a plan for free contraceptive care for everyone.
Regarding women who reported they had used abortion care in the UK before we repealed the eighth amendment, the women with whom they had sat side by side in those clinics received free contraceptive care following their abortion. That reduced the chance they would have to come for a future termination or abortion but Irish women were not receiving that. One would expect that when we rolled out termination or abortion services we would also roll out that contraceptive care following it.
In referencing a form of contraception that may cost €300, not every contraception suits every person. That may be due to the different stages of life they are at or the cost involved. However, research shows that 44% of those who were using online abortion providers said they had not used contraceptives and 56% said they had used a form of contraception that had failed. What is behind those figures is the fact that people intend to use contraception, be it condoms or taking the pill every day, but that is not always the reality of people’s lives. Longer term contraceptive use can work better in those circumstances.
If we are providing free contraceptives we must consider providing all the care that is associated with that to help people to make the best choices. That comes down to education and also the education of the healthcare providers. A problem that has been identified to me is that it is not happening at the moment. General practitioners are not getting the access to education they need to be able to advise people on the best form of contraception. When the Department is coming up with a plan, I would like it to consider using the type of implementation group for contraceptive care that was used for abortion care and that it would be a bottom up approach involving engaging with the stakeholders. For example, what do GPs need in order to be able to provide this care? What do women accessing the service need to have to be able to access this care?
Education is also a key factor for people in society generally. I have said to the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, previously and I reiterate it here that we need free contraception and when considering reproductive rights, there are three elements, that is, abortion care, free contraceptives and education. From speaking to those in third level institutions, I know they are trying their best with respect to the concept of consent, but we cannot have people arriving in an institution at the age of 17 or 18 not having received the proper education they need to have received in primary and second school. As a State, it is time to fess up and, essentially, provide proper sex education instead of the antiquated religious indoctrination type of approach we have had in the past. The ONE Study from the National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG, earlier this year found one incident where a boy in secondary school was told the best form of contraception was going by a woman’s cycle. That person will go on to lead a sexual life when he goes to university or starts to work with no proper understanding of the contraceptive choices available. Let us also address that issue.
Honestly, we are a progressive country. It is extremely welcome that we have this commitment in the programme for Government. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today. Great work was done by many non-governmental organisations and ordinary people in repealing the eighth amendment. Let us now get that last barrier lifted. I ask everybody to support this motion and thank them for the time they have taken to consider it. I ask my colleague, Senator Garvey, to second the motion.
I second the motion. It is 2020. It is no longer good enough to have periods, tampons and active sex lives as taboo subjects in this country. We must accept that and move with the times. Our young people are begging us for that. We have only recently started to talk about the concept of consent. That concept of consent is so lacking which is why there are all these unwanted pregnancies. It is why today it is important that we discuss at this time the need for choices for women around contraception. I thank all the people who worked very hard to repeal the eighth amendment, especially in the non-governmental organisation sector, the women who fought for it and the men who got involved to get it past the line. Part of the agreement from the committee and research was that we also had to consider contraceptive care and access to it. The Irish Family Planning Association has said that a major issue in that respect is location. Coming from rural Ireland, I know from talking to many young people and from my own experience when I was younger that sometimes one cannot access contraception of any kind.
As my colleague has pointed out, not everything in life is predictable. People can be abused, raped or subjected to unwanted sex. Contraception should be accessible for all women. There should be no financial barrier. It should not be a socioeconomic issue whereby those who can afford to do so can go to a private GP and pay for contraception. It should be accessible to all and that is why it has to be free.
I note 51% of the population is female. If we were coming from a matriarchy, this issue would not even be on the table today. However, because we are unfortunately in a patriarchy, we have to look for this. It is great that 40% of the House is female and it was the first thing I noticed on my first day in the Seanad. We need to step up to the mark and show that we respect women and their choices, and provide them with choices.
On freshers' day in colleges, a few free condoms might be thrown out but there begins and ends many people's education on anything to do with sexual activity. I again reiterate the importance of education on consent. A lot of the time, we are struggling to know what is right and wrong and lack the words to allow us to be in control of what is happening to us or what we are doing to other people. Consent, contraception and the right to abortion are all part of the journey people go through in life.
Those living in rural areas where there is no chemist cannot access the morning-after pill. Many pubs do not have condom vending machines. There are none in female toilets, so they have no choice, and men are lucky if the ones in their toilets are working. If they do, it could cost €10 for a pack of three. It is ridiculous; it is like something from the 1970s or 1980s. That is where we are at. It is not good enough any more.
We have to trust our young people. They have much more cop-on than we did. We have to give them these choices and show them that we have moved with the times. We cannot be stuck in the dark ages, telling people to say three Hail Marys and wait until they are married. That is a joke and an insult to every young person. If we said that, they would think we were mad. We have to keep up with the times.
We cannot always jump through hoops immediately in government. The eighth amendment was repealed a couple of years ago and we have to match it with what was promised, namely, that we would provide free contraception. This debate is about women aged 17 to 25 years but in the long term, all women need access to contraception. Then they can make choices and will have access to those choices.
This is a rural issue. Let us not pretend that Saturday night is not the most common time when unplanned sex happens. The next day all of the chemists in rural areas are closed and people cannot drive because they are over the limit. GP practices are all closed. If people happen to find a chemist that is open and it is their local one, everyone will know who they are. People will not avail of that service. That is a significant part of the cause of unwanted pregnancies. Let us face up to that fact, trust our young women and give them these choices for free in order that we are not discriminating against people who cannot afford contraception.
It is time we moved into 2020. I thank the Minister of State for his attendance today and look forward to his support of the motion.
I warmly welcome the motion and commend my colleagues in the Green Party on tabling it. I entirely echo the sentiments expressed by Senators Pauline O'Reilly and Garvey. They hit the nail on the head in their contributions. As Senator O'Reilly outlined, I raised a Commencement matter issue on this topic on 25 September. I hope the Minister of State will not mind me saying that I was less than satisfied with his answer on the day. I hope the position has moved on since 25 September.
Senator Garvey referenced the patriarchal society that we are living in. The response of the Minister of State on the day echoed that patriarchal society because he referenced the condom distribution scheme currently in place. While it is welcome, it is a male-based method of contraception and the control lies with the man, which is completely unsatisfactory. Condoms do not suit everyone and do not have a 100%, or even a very high, success rate. Therefore, it is completely unsatisfactory that we are saying this is what is available to the women of Ireland, who make up 51% of the population, as my colleagues have outlined.
The working group on access to contraception was established in April 2019 by the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to examine the policy, regulatory and legislative issues around the rolling out of a universal access to contraception scheme in Ireland following the recommendations of the committee on the eighth amendment. The working group produced a report more than 12 months ago which identified the various barriers facing women when accessing contraception. It stated that the choice of contraception, in particular, was an issue. The main barriers that exist involve the choice of contraception. As my colleagues have outlined, that is the key issue.
It is not good enough to say there is one method of contraception available which can do girls, and they should go off and make the best of it. That is not acceptable, and I do not think anybody sitting in the Chamber today thinks it is acceptable. We will not accept it in the future. This is an issue that has been a long while coming. We repealed the eighth amendment but we have not gone away and are not satisfied with the lack of progress on this. I will continue to raise this issue, and I know my colleagues here will do the same, if we do not see some real action.
The most effective forms of contraception, that is, those which are long-lasting, are not available unless one has a lot of money. As my colleagues pointed out, women, no matter what socioeconomic group they come from, will always prioritise their family whether that is paying for education, extracurricular activities, putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads. That has always been the case. Women, traditionally, have not been able to access politics because they prioritise their families. Contraception is another area in which they prioritise their families.
The cost of delivery of free universal access to contraception for everyone is €80 million to €100 million per year. The working group emphasised that the considerations that the Department needed to take into account when assessing the merits of the universal scheme go far beyond the financial aspects. They includes the health and well-being of the female population of Ireland. In particular, a universal scheme would negate the negative effects of unplanned pregnancies in Ireland. I note that 69% of women who travelled to England and Wales in 2018 to access abortion care were over 25 years of age. The motion specifically references the cohort aged between 17 and 25 years which, I am delighted to say, was included in the programme for Government. That is just the first step on the road, however.
We need to make sure that women over the age of 25 can access contraception. In fact, we need to make sure that women who are suffering from medical conditions such as endometriosis – we know thousands of women are suffering in silence in this country and have to access contraception to deal with this medical issue – are included as a priority in the scheme because to do otherwise would be completely unacceptable. I for one will not stop until this is delivered.
The phased approach being suggested, which is also in the programme for Government, will cost between €18 and €22 million per year, which is very small money when one considers the societal benefits it will deliver for us. I hope the Minister of State will be able to give us a clear outline on the roadmap to delivering this. The then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, promised the Dáil that the scheme would be available at the start of 2021. While I acknowledge we have had an election and a pandemic in the meantime, the pandemic has accelerated the need for this scheme because women have been suffering during the pandemic.
Women's ability to access contraception is brought into sharp focus when one thinks about women who are living in economically deprived situations, abusive homes or who may have to travel far beyond their community but who are now limited because of a lack of public transport options in urban or rural Ireland. We need to deliver this. It is not good enough that this is not available. We need some commitments from the Minister of State on the legislation that will be needed to introduce this scheme.
Can we have a clear timeline in order that we can hold the Minister of State and his colleagues to account on this? This is just the first piece of the jigsaw.
When will it be rolled out to everybody else? Has the Department costed this and projected it? It is part of the recommendations of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.
Long-acting contraceptive methods are the best and many women cannot access them. As my colleagues in the Green Party have pointed out, not every contraceptive method suits every women and women's needs change as their lives move on. This really needs to be taken into account.
I want to refer to the education mentioned by my colleagues. The lack of knowledge about people's reproductive systems and their contraceptive needs extends to the issue of period poverty, which is an issue I have been campaigning on for a long number of years. It is amazing the number of women who do not understand their own cycles and cannot then decide and make the best choices for themselves based on this.
We do not have a proper sex education system in our schools. We have been failing our young people in this regard. We are all products of this dysfunctional sex education system. We need to start educating parents. Even with the best will in the world, because they have gone through this dysfunctional education system with a complete lack of sex education, they are not able to educate their children. They do not have the tools to deliver this education, even with the best will in the world, in their own homes. This really needs to be looked at.
We will not sit idly by and let this issue slip down the priority scale. It is a major health issue in this country. I know we are in the middle of a pandemic but women need to be prioritised.
I commend and welcome the motion from our Green Party colleagues. I note the fact it is a clear commitment in the programme for Government. Furthermore, it is a recommendation in the report of the committee on the eighth amendment. While many recommendations in the committee's report gained huge traction and coverage at the time, this particular recommendation did not. It is a critical recommendation of the good work done by that committee, in which many colleagues from the House, including Senator Clifford-Lee, were involved. It is urgent at this stage that this recommendation, which is now a key commitment in the programme for Government, is delivered.
It is believed the recommendation would cost a total of €80 million to €100 million. That is cheap. It is very good value for money. As has been said, young people between the ages of 18 and 25 put the rent, food and survival on the table first as opposed to contraception. This is just human instinct and human nature. Therefore, this is where the State, which is supposed to be there to protect people, should intervene and should be there to facilitate what is extremely important.
We have come a long way and the referendum on the eighth amendment reflects this. It was an amazing step forward in how people treat other people and how society treats women who find themselves in a vulnerable situation. I was very proud at the time to play an active part in campaigning for a "Yes" vote. I think of the Oireachtas Members at the time. We could count on one hand the number of them who put up posters calling for a "Yes" vote in the west coast and rural areas, which was a pity because they did not really read the mood of the people. I was absolutely convinced at the time that the people would repeal the eighth amendment.
I want to speak for a moment about the issue of sex education. As Senator Clifford-Lee quite correctly pointed out, we all went through the system 20 or 30 years ago and it was non-existent. My fear is that it is extremely patchy. I also agree with the point that parents need to be educated on how to educate their children in sex education. Many parents do not have the skill set because their generation never experienced sex education. This is something that needs to happen. How it happens I do not know but it does need to happen.
Approximately two years ago, I was away with Senator Clifford-Lee representing the Parliament abroad. The first time I heard of period poverty was then, when she spoke to me about it. I was horrified at the concept. I commend her for the work she has done in highlighting the issue of period poverty. We as a State need to step up to the plate in this area.
The motion is super. It really does highlight the commitment in the programme for Government that needs to be delivered on. The three parties in government have a responsibility to deliver on it. I know everyone is committed to it and everyone speaks about wanting it to happen but let us make it happen.
I should have said at the outset that the Minister of State is extremely welcome to the House. I have no doubt about his commitment in this area. These motions are ideal for the Seanad because the Seanad gives us an opportunity to articulate a view which, I hope, informs the Government. Over the years, the House has done this so often and has succeeded. Let us hope that today the motion will give a gentle reminder to the Government that the clock is ticking and let us get on with it.
I lend my support to the motion and I commend my Green Party Seanad colleagues for bringing it forward. The programme for Government commitment is to expand access to free contraception to those aged between 17 and 25 as a starting point. This is €20 million that will be very well spent. I was at university in Queens in Belfast 20 years ago. We were entitled to GP access and prescriptions, including contraception. The hook to us at the time was free contraception. We were not living at home and just starting out being independent. That was the initial reaction but then, of course, we totally recognised it was a social support and something we were really supportive of.
It is bigger than this as it helped us develop a relationship with healthcare. It was a relationship with healthcare that was mine for the first time at that age, not coming through my family GP or through my parents' pockets. I had a job but going to the GP is expensive. Prescriptions are expensive. It empowered me to take responsibility for my own healthcare. It is independent entry-level healthcare. How often do most 17 to 25-year-olds have to go to the doctor? This is a very important touch point in their lives about their sexual and general health. It is something that stands the test of time. No matter what happened me then, if I had to engage in healthcare, particularly when I was having a smear test and having my children, it really helped with being confident in how I engaged with the healthcare system.
We speak about the barriers of cost, embarrassment, inconvenience, lack of knowledge and local access.
All those things are bang on. Breaking down those barriers in general for health, however, is also important. It states in the report that, "contraception use in Ireland is high and stable and difficulty accessing contraception is only a challenge at the margins", in the overall population. Then, however, one sees the Dublin Well Woman Centre research which found that 51% of women aged 17 to 45 had sex without contraception. We need to focus on that and we must work to it. Frankly, women need this support at a universal level. We must find ways to help women to be proactive and not reactive about their health.
I want to echo the words of Senators O'Reilly and Clifford-Lee on contraception and choices around contraception. There is no one-size-fits-all approach or method. It does not just take one visit to the GP and then it is all sorted. A person may have had to go back to the GP throughout the duration of their life or depending on their life stage. Perhaps, a person's initial contraception method will not work for them; it depends on their lifestyle. We need to empower women to be able to visit their GP, discuss the issues and find the contraception that is absolutely right for them. All methods should be available.
I know the Department will talk about finalising its approach or legislative proposals and ensuring the implementation of service delivery and so forth. I believe, however, we need to prioritise this and get on with it. We must look at a better education, continue to break down the barriers and taboos around contraception and deliver basic women's health.
It is unusual to be here today and not talk about student nurses with the Minister of State, as we have done every week for goodness knows how long at this point. It is a different topic today.
I welcome the spirit of this motion. I thank the Green Party for putting this forward. We need access to contraception and it is high time we sorted this out. I know we have talked about it and there is a phased approach in the programme for Government. I am, however, deeply concerned about how sometimes when we do things step-by-step, we can get stuck on a step, and the impact if we do this and then do not move any further and have the cut-off at 25 years of age.
As a member of the Labour Party, I am proud of our party's history on matters on contraception. Many a former Labour Party Deputy or Senator found his or her voice to be in the minority opinion when speaking about this issue in the not-too-distant past. I am proud of the role we have played in advocating for the access to and decriminalisation of contraception.
One of the most significant interventions was made by Deputy Howlin, who legislated for the legal sale of condoms in Ireland in 1993 when he was Minister for Health. It is not that long ago. Even I was alive in 1993. It was really not terribly long ago that we were only legalising the sale of condoms. It is a particular issue the student movement is terribly proud of. We were putting condom vending machines into buildings and they were being torn out of bathrooms and such, and the great student battle went on to have access to condoms. The issue was that the then Minister did not suggest it only needed to be made available to people aged under 25.
When the former Labour Party Deputy for Limerick city, Jan O'Sullivan, spoke about providing free contraception, she referenced that providing it only to women aged 17 to 24 would be considered the wrong approach. She said on the record that:
I welcome that a report has finally been produced outlining pathways to providing free contraception in Ireland. However, it is not acceptable that only a certain cohort – women aged 17-24 – would receive free contraception. [...]
As a country we can’t just provide free contraceptive pills or condoms and think that we have done a good job. A comprehensive provision of the full range of methods, including long-acting reversible contraceptives such as the copper coil and implant, would cost less in the long run than the provision of short-acting methods alone. Evidence suggests that the overall cost to the State would fall year on year as women and girls switch to more reliable and cost-effective methods.
There is no one-size fits all approach to contraception – what works for one person may not work for another. This is our one change to get the provision of contraception right for all women, not just a chosen few and we need to make sure it is done right.
These sentiments around the full range of contraceptive methods we need have been echoed in the room already, particularly more long-term ones which, certainly, when I was younger, were not talked about a huge amount. It is important, however, to recognise that we do not lock people out of this and there is a firm commitment to going beyond. Senator Clifford-Lee asked what next steps are. What commitment is being made to move this to being universally available to all those who need it, rather than it just being acceptable? We are not back in the 1960s.
The working group on access to contraception made it plain in its report. The committee recommends, "The introduction of a scheme for the provision of the most effective method of contraception, free of charge and having regard to personal circumstances, to all people who wish to avail of them within the State." The recommendation was that everyone should be able to access them. The most adversely affected would be women who find themselves aged out of access to free contraception but still stuck in the economic reality of being unable to afford to access it privately. That position can be dealt with if there are no particular age limits.
I hope the thinking is not that all women over the age of 25 will have the means to purchase contraception, or that they have reached an age where safe sex does not need to be practised. I do not think that is the assumption. Perhaps, however, sometimes people looking in might believe that is the assumption the Government is putting forward. I really want to drive in on that. I want to know what we are going to do for people over the age of 25 and what the plan is over the next couple of years to make contraception accessible to all.
Obviously, contraception being accessible is a preventive measure. We have talked much about that here. I believe everyone recognises that. I know more women, however, who have accessed contraception for medical and health reasons rather than for "sexy time", or whatever one wishes to call it.
My own experience of this numbers more than 22 years. I am only in my early 30s so that gives an idea of how young I was when I had to begin this battle with my health. It has taken me until my early 30s to find a doctor who said I deserve both physical health and sexual well-being. It has been a long journey to find someone who was willing to work with me to find something that worked with my body to deal with medical issues, and that other parts of my life should not have to suffer. I hope that when we make it more available and normalised for people to be able to access contraception at a much younger age, not only will it deal with their sexual well-being but also the enormous physical well-being benefits. I know we sometimes think of contraception as being for one particular area. Many women, however, will actually say they have to use it for medical reasons to manage their well-being.
Senator O'Reilly spoke succinctly around the importance of preventive measures so I do not need to go into all the facts and figures again; she outlined them well. I want to highlight the importance of long-acting reversible contraceptives, LARC, which I mentioned before. Certainly, when I was starting out in college or in my teens, it was not talked about. That set women and young girls my age onto a cycle of expensive monthly prescriptions and doing all sorts of things. I would certainly speak in favour of that as an option if it is one that will work for women.
We spoke about the Repeal the 8th campaign. During that campaign, I remember meeting three women in their mid- to late 30s who were done with having their families and having children. They had their children and did not want any more. Their local GPs in rural areas refused to give them a prescription for contraception. Those three women from different parts of the country all ended up pregnant. They did not want to have any more children or continue their families. At the time, they ended up going down the road of availing of the Internet to access abortion care. Obviously, we do not have to do that now.
When we talk about contraception, however, we also need to talk about some of the assumptions made around contraception. People genuinely need to be able to access contraception. That conversation, perhaps, needs to happen with GPs around people and their family planning, and a woman's right to be empowered to decide when she has had her family or, indeed, that she does not wish to start a family.
It was only three years ago that this was happening.
I want to reiterate the points I made about education. We need a proper sex education curriculum that is inclusive of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, community. We need to do proper work on people having healthy sexual relationships that are built on trust and consent. It is too late to begin consent conversations at third level. I was involved in the student movement and I came up with the hashtag #AskConsent for that campaign. That precludes an awful lot of people because not everyone goes on to third level. While we are discussing access to contraception, we also need to discuss access to informative, reliable sex education from a younger age. To reiterate my earlier point, I know of women my age who still find themselves trekking around towns trying to find pharmacies in which they can access the morning-after pill.
It is great that we are having this conversation, and I welcome this motion from the Green Party. I would love to hear how we are going to make sure that everyone can access contraception. The motion highlights the fact that in many places there is still a long way to go in the context of women being able to access contraception in their local pharmacies when they want to do so. We also have a long way to go when it comes to providing healthy and informative sex education for younger people so that we will not have to deal with it when they are older or when they reach third level.
I am here to speak on behalf of Sinn Féin's Seanad team to say that we welcome this motion and are happy to support it. As has been said by many others, this State has a long history of denying women the right to make decisions about their bodies. The referendum to repeal the eighth amendment was an important step in redressing that but the country still has a way to go.
Previous speakers mentioned the issue of period poverty, which is addressed in the programme for Government. We would hope to see progress on this because periods did not stop during the pandemic but access to period products was severely hampered for homeless people and for those in direct provision centres. I commend the work being done by the Homeless Period Ireland and Claire Hunt, the woman who runs that organisation from her kitchen table. She does not take any charitable donations and she is not a charity. She just did it because she saw a film about a person being criminalised for stealing period products and it motivated her to set up this organisation and to go out of her way to help. She does that with a group of volunteers but it goes to show once again that it is women who are put in the position whereby they cannot have access to the products they need.
Contraception is similar and it should be provided by the State for free. A person's decision about his or her healthcare should be up to him or her alone and should not be dictated by the State or by economic circumstances or ability to pay. Unfortunately for some people, the cost of contraception is a significant barrier to accessing it. According to the report that was released last month by the Dublin Well Woman Centre, the cost is a significant consideration for 44% of women when choosing their methods of contraception. For women who are just above the qualification criteria for a medical card, the cost can be prohibitive. Autonomy should be central to the State's approach to women's health and making contraception free would go some way to achieving that.
In addition to the cost of contraception, there are several other barriers that should be looked at when designing a State-funded scheme. One of the main barriers is distance. Contraception should be available to women all over the country, no matter where they live. Senator Hoey talked about this and I am shocked to hear that women are still having to travel to find pharmacies. I remember 20 years ago having to travel to find a GP who would prescribe emergency contraception. We know from the Dublin Well Woman Centre report that it is not the case that it is accessible to women all over the country. The report found that 18% of women still have to leave their home towns in order to avail of the contraception of their choice. That is not good enough and it is clearly something that we need to look at when we are designing the scheme.
We also need to be cognisant of the fact that certain groups will face greater barriers than others. I am talking about young people, refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, people with disabilities, Travellers and other marginalised groups. Specific measures must be introduced to address their contraceptive needs in any State-funded programme. We also need to be cognisant of the LGBT community. Although the burden of contraception all too often falls to women, it does not have to be theirs alone. We should give consideration to supporting men who wish to avail of contraception, particularly vasectomies. Although that procedure does not provide protection against sexually transmitted disease, it can give another option to couples or individuals who are seeking contraception.
Important work has been undertaken by the Department of Health through its working group on access to contraception. The Irish Family Planning Association has expressed its concern that no progress appears to have been made since the publication of the working group's report over a year ago so more must be done. I know that Sinn Féin representatives recently co-signed a letter to the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Health, with the aim of ensuring that sexual health and reproductive health and rights are central to Government policy.
I and Sinn Féin welcome that the motion calls on the Government to honour its commitments in the programme for Government. The Government should implement the roll-out of contraception to women aged 17 to 25. I agree that we need to look at providing contraception to all women for when they need it and that we should set a timeline for universal free contraception. I welcome the motion's role in reminding the Government of what it committed to in respect of contraception in the programme for Government.
I join others in welcoming the motion. It is a good and timely motion because the issue of access to contraception and to the full range of sexual health and reproductive rights has been identified as something that was a concern in many parts of the world during the Covid-19 crisis. It is good to remind ourselves during the health crisis we have more widely in terms of Covid-19, that there are lots of other time-sensitive health needs and it is important that we do all we can to ensure they can be accessed. There are many positive elements to the motion, which, as already stated, I support. However, I want to highlight a number of elements within it that are particularly important and positive. I like the fact that the motion recognises that this is an issue of women's rights and of human rights in the wider sense. It is important to recognise, as was said, the needs of the LGBT community and other needs when it comes to access to contraception.
The motion identifies the multiple reasons that people may need to access contraception, a matter which others have spoken about. It mentions multiple health needs and addresses issues such as disease prevention and pregnancy prevention but there are other huge issues, such as family planning and health needs. The motion recognises that breadth of purposes.
I note the emphasis on that ancillary recommendation from the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. It is really important because we know that received a huge focus from the committee. It was not necessarily the part that got all of the headlines in the media but I know the members of the committee put huge thought and work into the detail of the ancillary recommendations. As we approach the review of that legislation, it is important that we have demonstrable progress on those ancillary recommendations.
As others have said, there have been recommendations on comprehensive sex and relationship education, which will be really important. We need to move forward on that, including on the issue of consent. We need to look at consent before college age and we need to recognise the different realities and experiences of young people and make sure they are reflected in that education.
The other key recommendation was on free contraception. There was an important line in that recommendation, which others have touched on. The committee recommended: "The introduction of a scheme for the provision of the most effective method of contraception, free of charge and having regard to personal circumstances." That matter needs to be addressed. Members have talked about long-acting reversible contraceptives, LARCs, and how for many people and women, that is the right choice. That is especially true when it comes to particular personal circumstances such as those who are in rural areas, those who are in difficult family situations and those who have economic difficulties. It is important that they are given access to LARCs and that there is a choice so that they have that opportunity to identify the right form of contraception for them.
The motion focuses on people aged 17 to 25, as a matter of priority, but it also calls for the development of universal free contraception within the lifetime of this Government. It will be good if we are given a timeline for universal contraception in the next few months. It might not just be about age cohorts though we begin with 17 to 25-year-olds. There are, as has been discussed, particular vulnerable groups such as people living in direct provision and in other situations. We should not simply think of the roll-out just in terms of time but make sure that it is planned according to need.
I strongly welcome this positive motion but I want to highlight that it sits in a wider context. Last week, I was re-elected to the executive of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual & Reproductive Rights. It produces a global contraception atlas every year that considers access to contraception at a global level. The 2020 atlas highlighted that in some northern European countries there is a 73% level of general access to contraception, it is 69% in parts of western Europe and 66% in Ireland, which is lower than the European average. Crucially, in Ireland there is still an unmet need for contraception rate of 6%. The atlas highlighted a few other key issues. One is that there have been positive policy changes in a number of countries regarding financial barriers, as proposed and is being attempted here today, but there has been a rollback in some countries.
Last year, was the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development. There is a huge unmet need for contraception internationally. I hope that in the spirit of what we are doing about access in Ireland that the State will, in its international development policy, support access to contraception on a global level. That is particularly important following a very difficult period in the global gag rule when many international health needs were compromised. We must continue the same spirit of providing access to the people who need it most here in Ireland and, indeed, universal access on a global level.
An awful lot of ground has been covered. With the level of erudite debate, fire and passion and zealous commitment, the advocacy of women's rights has never been as strong in this country. Any young person, be it a boy or a girl, who witnesses this debate will be inspired by the respect, fire, passion and intelligence of the debate. Women's rights and the advocacy for same are in a safe and good place. However, my fellow Senators would be the first to say that the Government will be judged on results on which I am quietly confident. That is an ongoing battle but we have brilliant people in the battle. I am privileged to be in this Seanad with extremely capable Senators and, by coincidence, the vast majority of them are women. I have not let Senator Conway away with it as I am the second male Senator to make a contribution. Senator Clifford-Lee has a great background in this issue as does Senator Currie who spoke earlier.
The Seanad will be judged on results and I am quietly confident regarding this issue. We also have very fantastic debates when we agree to disagree. I am heartened to see the goodwill shown towards the Green Party motion and I commend my Green Party colleagues, Senators Pauline O'Reilly and Garvey. The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Senator Pippa Hackett, who, as a super junior Minister, while in the background is very supportive of the motion. It is a time and a country where men cannot be behind the door. I was heartened to hear the contribution made by Senator Conway, with which I fully concur and I concur with all of the other remarks. Well done to everyone on this small step in the right direction. The Green Party has a very vibrant women's movement, Mná Glasa, which will be very proud of the actions taken by Senators O'Reilly and Garvey. No one political party has ownership of this. As I have often said, it is counterproductive for one party to be associated as a monopoly when it comes to climate change and equally so with these issues that go to the heart of society, and how we value and treat people equally, how fair we are and how we protect human rights.
One Senator is missing today but I am sure that she is unavoidably absent but she had a fantastic deputy in Senator Hoey. I refer to Senator Ivana Bacik who has been at the forefront of this issue for many years, unlike myself. She has devoted her adult life to these causes. There is also Senator Alice-Mary Higgins. The Labour Party has not always been rewarded electorally but it deserves some credit for being on the right side of history, which is a good enough memory, karma and pride to have. That does not always translate to votes in an election box but this is much more important than that. The Irish Labour Party has been a beacon and I would like to think the same applies to the Green Party and many others. I say to those parties that have not been so strong on these issues in the past that we are not into judgementalism. The late Brian Lenihan Snr. spoke about "the futility of consistency". People are entitled to change their minds and should be respected for same. We will have real progress in this country when all parties are onboard, including Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. I anticipate that the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, will make a very positive and uplifting address because I know his track record.
Parties are always evolving.
They are always evolving and changing. No one should every be afraid of change. Evolution is a good thing.
I commend everyone and feel privileged to be part of this erudite debate. I thank Senator Pauline O'Reilly who moved the motion and will close the debate. Finally, I thank the Leas-Cathaoirleach for his indulgence.
I welcome the Minister of State back to his alma mater and he has 15 minutes.
I thank Senators Pauline O'Reilly, Garvey and Martin, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, for tabling this important motion. I thank them for the opportunity to set out the commitment of the Government and my Department to expand access to free contraception to all women aged between 17 and 25 and, indeed, the commitment to promoting women's health more generally through the work of the women's health task force in the Department of Health.
Like Senator Martin, I am humbled and very thankful to attend this very reasoned, informed and welcome debate that included advocacy on behalf of women's groups. He rightly said that no one party has ownership of this issue. However, I would like to thank the Labour Party, as it has always been taken the lead on a very liberal agenda. In 1993, Deputy Brendan Howlin led the way in with the significant, landmark decision to legalise the sale of condoms. I agree that sometimes the Labour Party is not rewarded electorally. It has always led the way and brought parties, like my party of Fine Gael and many other parties, along a journey that we followed and I thank them.
I have listened to all of the individual contributions that were made with real passion and knowledge of the topic.
I strongly agree with many of the points that have been well made by Senators.
Recent studies, such as that undertaken by the Dublin Well Woman Centre and the ERSI-HSE report, Talking about Sex and Sexual Behaviour among Young People in Ireland, have shown that some Irish women face real barriers in accessing contraception. Senators have reflected that research in this motion. It referred to rent, food, education and survival. Senators Garvey and O’Reilly outlined the challenges and barriers in rural areas, small villages and towns. It brought it home to me.
The results of this more recent research broadly reflect the findings of a working group report on access to contraception, published by the Department of Health in October 2019. This working group was established in April 2019, following recommendations from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. It was charged with considering the range of policy, regulatory and legislative arising issues in enhancing access to contraception. The group's high-level report provided a clear overview of the challenges associated with accessing contraception and outlined the potential for State intervention to address those barriers. The report highlighted the need for any new contraceptive scheme to provide women with the opportunity to choose the most effective and suitable type of contraception for them, based on their individual health and lifestyle needs and preferences.
As a result, there is rightly considerable focus on the existence of barriers to contraception. However, it is important to acknowledge that cost is only one such barrier. The working group report and the wider research literature show that local accessibility, embarrassment and lack of knowledge or information are also important factors that need to be considered. The interaction between contraceptive usage and cost is complex and should not be framed only in simple binary terms as to whether an individual can or cannot afford contraception. Rather, the question must also be whether cost factors may be influencing decision-making on the type of contraception used or how effectively or consistently a particular method of contraception is being used.
I say this not to dispute the points that were so well made earlier in this debate, but rather to caution against the view that simply making contraception free is enough to make contraception more widely available. We need to adopt an approach that targets all of the often interrelated barriers in a coherent and strategic manner to have the best impact on this problem. This is particularly the case if we are to encourage and enable the use of LARCs, which research has clearly shown can be the most effective form of contraception for many women. It is, therefore, essential that as well as rightly stepping up and tackling the cost issues, that we also ensure that services are readily accessible across the country, that policy initiatives are supported by educational and informational campaigns and that there is sufficient qualified capacity among healthcare professionals. A free contraceptive service is of little use if there is no local access to the service or if an individual is not informed about the different options that are available to them and about their potential benefits.
The Government's initial focus on those aged 17 to 25 is evidence of just such a strategic approach as we are prioritising that cohort of people who are most at risk for crisis pregnancy and are more likely to find cost a barrier to contraception. This does not mean that older age groups do not require supports. It is the Minister’s intention to consider an appropriate timeline for the roll-out of a universal State-funded contraceptive scheme, alongside the work that will be undertaken to develop and finalise the policy approach in respect of the 17 to 25 age group. However, further stakeholder consultation will be essential as we progress work in this area.
One of the strengths of the working group process was that it allowed an extensive public consultation process with more than 5,000 responses received, while also creating the opportunity for more extensive engagement with several key stakeholders, including both the Irish College of General Practitioners and the Irish Family Planning Association, IFPA, among others. There is a positive working relationship between State, voluntary and community groups working in the field of sexual health and well-being more generally. The Minister is looking forward to building on those relationships to help develop the best ways to improve access to contraception across the State.
I am sure Senators will join me in acknowledging and welcoming the fact that contraception use in Ireland is high and stable. It is important to recognise that Ireland is not an outlier in contraception policy. The European Contraception Atlas for 2019 ranked Ireland 12th of 46 countries with a rating of 65% for Government policies on access to contraceptive supplies, family planning counselling and the provision of online information on contraception. Senator Hoey mentioned she is in her 30s. I grew up in the early 1980s. It was a much different country back then. We have come a long way but we have much more to do.
This is not to say that there is not room for improvement. There is always space to do more but it indicates the measures and supports that we already have in place through the HSE's sexual health and crisis pregnancy programme, and through the sexual health strategy, are having a positive effect. It also proves that we have a strong foundation and solid base in place to go forward together and take that next step of widening access to contraceptive services as set out in the Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green Party programme for Government commitments.
For instance, the national condom distribution scheme, which is administered by the health and well-being unit of the Department of Health and falls under my remit as Minister of State, was established to promote condom use among individuals and groups who may be at increased risk of negative sexual health outcomes. It freely distributed in excess of 730,000 condoms and almost 450,000 lubricant sachets in 2019. This scheme has been expanded to include third-level colleges with the roll-out of condom dispensary services to over 23 third-level colleges to increase the opportunities for younger people to make safer-sex choices. It is envisioned that this service will be further expanded in the future. Senator Clifford-Lee felt that this might not be enough. This service includes migrants, young people, gay, bisexual and other MSM, sex workers, those with addiction issues and those with HIV. Take-up of the service has doubled. Senator Clifford-Lee is correct that we need to do more in this respect. She also wanted this prioritised. I will bring that back to the Government. Choices around contraception can be expanded too.
Embarrassment and lack of information have been identified as important barriers to contraception. With this in mind, a key goal of the national sexual health strategy is to ensure that everyone receives not only a comprehensive, age-appropriate sexual health education but has access to equitable high-quality sexual health services and robust information. In this regard, Senators may be interested to note that in partnership with the Irish Pharmacy Union, the HSE launched Play it Safe in August, a major new information campaign encouraging young adults to consider their sexual health and well-being during the current pandemic.
This campaign involves making sexual health protection packs available in pharmacies nationwide, offering valuable information and supports to young adults, who we know from public health data are most affected by crisis pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
Beyond these initiatives, which seek to address the issue of access to contraception within the wider framework of sexual health, we must not lose sight of the fact that those individuals who hold a medical card already have access to most types of contraception free of charge. Almost 125,000 people have availed of contraceptive drugs and special services through the general medical services, GMS, scheme in 2019, while others who hold a GP visit card are also supported by reducing the clinical cost element of contraception. At the same time, the Minister for Health is acutely aware that for those who fall slightly short of qualification for the medical card, cost can be a real barrier to accessing the preferred or most appropriate form of contraception. Again, this can be a particular issue in respect of LARCs, which have a high upfront cost.
Although contraception is not solely a woman's issue, the ability to decide whether and when to have children has a direct impact on the physical, psychological and social well-being of women. It is in this wider context of women's health that the Government wishes to further expand access to contraception, and I wish to take this opportunity to briefly highlight the work underway on this wider agenda. Budget 2021 provided for a dedicated €5 million for a women's health fund to progress a programme of actions arising from the work of the women's health task force, which was established to improve women's health outcomes and experiences of healthcare. This funding complements the additional investment delivered across women's health services as part of budget 2021, including the €12 million investment in delivering the national maternity strategy and improving gynaecology and fertility services, and the €10 million investment in screening services, including BreastCheck and CervicalCheck. In sum, there should be no doubt about the commitment of the Minister of Health and that of the Government as a whole to promoting women's health and that includes providing access to free contraception for all women aged 17 to 25. Nonetheless, it must also be accepted that this is not a straightforward issue, and a sizable body of work needs to be addressed to develop and finalise the policy approach, bring forward the necessary legislative proposals and to finally ensure the implementation of service delivery arrangements.
Regrettably, as with most areas in my Department, work on this issue has been disrupted significantly by the need to prioritise the response to Covid-19. This was unavoidable due to the significant scale of the public health emergency we have faced, but it does not mean the issue of access to contraception has been forgotten. Indeed, as I have outlined, the opposite is the case. There has been considerable financial investment and a lot of valuable work undertaken to alleviate the barriers to contraception. The next step is to address the issue of cost on a wider scale. The Minister for Health recently met with the IFPA to discuss this particular issue and to help chart a path forward. I spoke to him briefly prior to this debate about this issue, and it is clear that he is looking forward to working with the IFPA and other stakeholders to deliver on the Government's commitment in this regard. As a result, the Government will not oppose the motion, and I thank the Senators and the Minister of State present for raising this very important issue and for the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to the issue.
As Senator Higgins said, we must provide the most effective, long-acting contraception free of charge, and I note her point. We also must prioritise this issue in government and I have heard the message loud and clear. Senator Martin summed it up perfectly when he said that the debate was both informed and robust. I thank Senators for bringing many of the relevant issues to the floor of the House. I look forward to working with them in the coming weeks and months in prioritising this agenda.
I call Senator Pauline O'Reilly who has five minutes to respond to the debate.
I believe Senator Fitzpatrick wants to contribute.
I did not have the opportunity to follow the debate as I was in committee, so the problem is that aside from being aware of the issue that was being debated, I have no idea what has been spoken about in my absence. I thank the Minister of State for giving his time to this motion, and I apologise for not being present. Unfortunately, I was attending a committee meeting at which we were dealing with an important report on the unmet needs of children with special needs and their families.
This is a hugely important issue for this Government, and I know the Minister of State appreciates that, but it is also a hugely important issue for every man, woman and child in the country. We need to move beyond the point of consensus that we have established, and that has been documented, articulated and promoted. The Government must get on with rolling out free contraception. There is an identified target group in the initial phase of the roll-out, namely, 17- to 25-year-olds, which I wholly support. I do not know how the Minister of State responded to the motion, but I hope that it will make for good reading later and that I will find it encouraging. If that is not the case, I will be back here in January, tabling the same motion, and asking the Minister of State to return to the House. I am sure that my colleagues will join me in re-engaging with the debate. The women of both Chambers are committed to this issue, and we have shown this month-on-month. We want to see action taken on this promise in the programme for Government. It is an extensive and ambitious programme for Government, but it is one that we support and we believe that it can and should be delivered on in the near future.
It is my great pleasure to support this motion along with my colleagues today. It is a motion that should be supported. I am happy that the Minister of State has also been supportive of it. I was unaware of the fact that speakers could make contributions after the Minister of State had responded to the motion. Perhaps I should have been aware of this and I have been terribly negligent. It was a slip-up on my part. I had intended to speak on this issue, but I did not anticipate having the opportunity to do so.
While the provision of free contraception is part of the programme for Government, it is worthy and worthwhile that Senators Pauline O'Reilly, Garvey, Martin, and the Minister of State, Deputy Hackett, brought forward this motion, because it is an important one. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to make contraception freely available to all women, and that is as it should be. However, the motion is also timely and important because it will give impetus and strong, public support to the issue. It will also leave the Government on notice that is a commitment that must be honoured, and that those putting forward the motion are insisting that it be honoured. That is a worthwhile exercise, and it is representative of how the democratic system and our parliamentary system works.
The principle that all women should have access to free contraception is a good one on a number of levels. It removes an inequality at the income level, which is a real form of inequality. It also deals with situations where people are in extremely difficult, barbarous, horrendous and medieval relationships, and where they may not have a supportive partner or another who can help them to access contraception. These women may be victims of domestic bullying or violence, or a combination thereof, who cannot access contraception because they have to purchase it. That is a very important dimension of this motion. Tragically, not all relationships and situations are as they should be.
It deals with that scenario and with the scenario whereby there is an inequality of income. There should be no issue there. It should assist people who are living in long-term poverty, who are unemployed and so on. It should be across the board. Access to contraception is and should be a woman’s right in a civilised and modern society that can afford to facilitate it. In many ways, it could be seen as an act of atonement to women for years of it being wrongly the other way, for want of better English. The weight of injustice was so great for so many years in the opposite direction that it would be an exercise in atonement or a public apology through practical support. That is another reason to do it.
The Minister of State alluded to the fact that the free availability of contraception has to be accompanied by good sexual education, good public health education and supports, in educational terms in a good programme in schools, etc. It is not enough to do this is an isolated fashion. I am sure the proposers of the motion would accept that it is not enough to suggest that contraception be made available in the absence of the necessary support system, health services, education and so on.
I know from working with him and from being in this House with him for a long time that the Minister of State brings a big heart to politics and will be the first to say that we cannot use these things as excuses. We have to get on with the legislation, put it in place and provide the necessary supports in parallel. There can be no excuses. Sometimes you hear somebody saying that they do not want such a neighbour living beside them because there are not enough schools or supports. In essence, they do not want the neighbour in the first place and they use these excuses. The same principle applies here. We cannot put any barriers in the way. It is the right thing to do and we should do it.
Those are the substantive points I want to make. Sex education or sexual education - whatever the correct terminology is - in our schools is crucial. People should be educated in relationships, in mutual respect and in the integrity of the other individual. A good programme into schools is a sine qua non, as is a good, supportive public health system for our women. It should be an interventionist system where that is needed in order that there will be intervention where wrong exists. We should, as a priority, introduce free contraception to deal with income disparity, lack of access to resources and, specifically, abusive relationships and circumstances where people have addictive personalities or have other ways of spending their income to the detriment of their well-being. It is important that a supportive system be put in place in this regard.
I indicate, as my colleagues have done, that we strongly support the motion. We support the Green Party in bringing it forward. It is progressive and right and it should not be the subject of debate. I do not think it is the subject of debate. All that is at issue is saying we want it to happen as quickly as possible. We do not want it to go off the radar. It does not give rise to any cleavages or disagreement. I described the Minister of State as a man with heart earlier. I do not think anyone with a heart, a mind or a combination of the two could oppose this motion. It should happen and the fact that it should happen is not a reason to ignore it. It is important that the motion is there and that it happens. One cannot assume that the right thing will happen if one says nothing. I congratulate the Green Party. This is an excellent motion. My main objective is to indicate the universal support in the Fine Gael group for it. That emerged at our meetings and everywhere else. There is nothing but enthusiastic support in our group.
It goes to show the sincere seriousness of the debate that the Leas-Chathaoirleach asked me to take the Chair in order to facilitate him in addressing the House. I was happy to do that.
I thank the Acting Chairman. I appreciate his stepping in.
I thank the Minister of State and all Senators. I was not entirely sure how today’s debate, for want of a better word, would go because there are people who have different views from some Senators who are not present in the House. It shows that across this Chamber there is predominant support for the rights of women. As was mentioned by my colleague, Senator Garvey, 40% of the Members of the House are women. If one looks across every other area of politics in Ireland, one does not find that. That is why I feel passionate about this matter.
The Leas-Chathaoirleach put it well when he said that it is almost like atonement. There was a sense of frustration over many years among women that they were seen as second-class citizens. It reached a tipping point when it came to the eighth amendment. I still feel that sense of anxiety and almost shame, dare I say it, about the fact we are not putting into practice what Senator Higgins referred to as the ancillary recommendations. She said it in such a way as to suggest they are ancillary but they are crucial and they took up so much time when people were doing their deliberations on the eighth amendment. It is crucial and despite some of the findings alluded to in the working group on how great we are doing on contraception, globally we are doing quite poorly on contraception so it is not a high bar.
If we talk about being progressive, why can we not be progressive and number one? It has been outlined time and again that women do not have access. All the facts and figures are on our side to show that people do not have the access they need. For every person in a situation of a crisis pregnancy or, as Senator Hoey stated, relating to their own healthcare, we need as a society to act now and we have to take into consideration the historical context in this country and not deal with this as if it is a minor thing on the side. This is critical to who we are if we are saying that we are moving forward and coming out of the dark ages. It is women who have been pulling this country out of the dark ages and this is another step.
I do not like to point out that I congratulate the men here because I also congratulate the women here and any non-binary person who happens to be discussing this issue. It is an issue for all of us and no one should be held higher than another person.
I will talk about a few things people have said while they remain fresh in my mind. An excellent point was raised by Senator Higgins on global responsibility. That is key and it is not in the motion but it is an important point.
Ireland is held up as a country that assumes its global responsibilities in terms of the climate and overseas development aid. We now need to determine whether we can include these issues in that as well.
Senator Garvey spoke about local access in rural areas and small towns. The Minister of State spoke about the same issue passionately. As Senator Boylan mentioned, the Well Woman Clinic pointed to this as one of the key factors, in that people must still travel for contraception. People feel shame and embarrassment.
Senators Conway and Clifford-Lee raised the question of education. The latter called it a dysfunctional system. Will the Minister of State speak to his ministerial colleagues about this point? His Government could be the one to transform the way we educate our children and, consequently, educate them as parents.
This could also be the Government that provides free access to contraception, which is a right in many countries like Portugal and the UK. It was in the programme for Government. Senator Clifford-Lee mentioned that she had raised this as a Commencement matter. Free contraception was to be rolled out soon. I would like to know when. I acknowledge that these have been difficult times for the Government, but we need a timeline. We know what the problems in the healthcare system are. I do not want to be completely negative, but it is my job as a Member of the Upper House to hold the Government to account. That is why I have tabled this Private Members' motion. Like Senator Fitzpatrick, I will be back in January and most of us will continue putting this matter on the agenda so that we can see the timeline for it.
I welcome the €5 million for the women's health fund in budget 2021. I draw the House's attention to the €12 million investment in delivering the national maternity strategy. It was a great shame that, after all of the work that was put into the strategy, it did not see the kinds of gain we expected during the term of the previous Government. The current Government needs to invest heavily in alongside care, which was a key part of the strategy. Alongside care has not progressed. I will also table something on this issue.
There has been major investment in screening services, including BreastCheck and CervicalCheck. I congratulate the Minister of State and the entire Department on that.
We still do not have a timeline, but this motion is a step. That is what I have told everyone. I ask the Minister of State to listen fully to the call not only of the women of this nation, but of the women of this Chamber. We do not outnumber men in the Seanad, in the Lower House or on local authorities. Unfortunately, we do not have female representation. Perhaps that is why we are still fighting years later for the most basic of services for our overall health, menstrual health, sexual health and mental health. This is a country that needs to think not just about the economy but also about people's well-being.
I congratulate the Senator for moving the motion. When is it proposed to sit again?
Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m. in the Dáil Chamber.
Is that agreed? Agreed.