Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Ceisteanna (45)

Louise O'Reilly


45. Deputy Louise O'Reilly asked the Minister for Health the status of the provision of abortion services for women resident in Northern Ireland further to the enactment of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018; when he will deliver on his commitment for free provision for these women; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5463/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (8 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Health)

I have a straightforward question; I want to know the status of the provision of abortion services for women who are resident in the North of Ireland, further to the enactment of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act. When will the Minister for Health deliver on the commitment he gave for the free provision of access for these women?

I thank the Deputy for the question. I am very much aware of the concerns that women in Northern Ireland have regarding access to termination of pregnancy, which are similar to those faced by women in the Republic prior to the recent change in the law here as a result of the referendum. I hope that we arrive at a situation in the not too distant future where Northern Ireland makes its own decisions on this issue and moves in a direction where it can care for women in its health service. As long as that remains not to be the case I want to make sure we can offer care. I know that the Deputy and I share this view for women on the island of Ireland, regardless of whether a person lives North or South.

I believe it is welcome and it is progress that women who live in Northern Ireland can now access termination services in this jurisdiction. The Deputy will be aware, however, that under the Health Act 1970, eligibility for public health services is based on a person being ordinarily resident in the State. This is the bedrock on which our eligibility system for health services, and many other public services, is founded. The necessary provisions were made in the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 to enable universal access for women living in the State to the services in question without charge. Women who live in Northern Ireland can access termination services in this jurisdiction - which is an important message to send out - but would, in effect, be doing so not in the universal and free way that women in the Republic of Ireland can.

To be very clear, I do not believe this is fair and I share the Deputy's wish to facilitate access without charge to termination of pregnancy services to women from Northern Ireland. Such a proposal, however, raises a number of legal and policy issues. I have had some initial discussion with the Attorney General about the matter. He has indicated that as a proposition along these lines appears not to have been considered before, it would require a fair bit of work. I, therefore, intend to undertake such an examination of the issues in conjunction with the Attorney General and other Government colleagues as necessary. We had a good meeting when Deputy O'Reilly brought civic society groups that are campaigning on this matter in Northern Ireland to Leinster House. I was pleased to have a chance to meet the Deputy and those groups. I would very much welcome the chance to do that again and to see, together and on a cross-party basis, how we can rectify this. My policy intention was clear; I want women in Northern Ireland to be able to access the services they can. To make sure they can access the services in a universal and free way is something I am currently trying to find a solution to. I remain absolutely committed to working to find one.

For some women the €450 they have to pay to access the service represents a prohibitively expensive barrier they cannot overcome. In 2017, just over 900 women from the North of Ireland travelled for an abortion. The figure is low and I venture that the financial commitment is not huge, but I do not dispute that it is a financial commitment. All of the circumstances that the Minister outlined in his reply were known to him when he made the commitment.

However, nothing has changed in the meantime. All of the circumstances were known. My colleague, Megan Fearon, MLA; Grainne Taggart of Amnesty International, the Alliance for Choice and other groups are working hard to do what they can for women in the North. However, I put it to the Minister that it was he who made the commitment and that it is up to him to deliver on it. I would welcome an opportunity to meet him again to discuss the matter. As I have said before, I assure him that he will have my party's support in bringing this about, but for many, €450 does not represent access but a barrier.

Yes and for many others, it facilitates access. It means that people can access services on the island of Ireland without having to travel to another island and stay overnight in the United Kingdom or experience high air fares and so on. It means being able to visit a GP in the Republic at an early stage of pregnancy to access services at primary care level. However, the Deputy should not take this to suggest I think it is satisfactory. My commitment was given in good faith. My commitment that women would be able to access the service has been acted on. The commitment on which I want to deliver, however, is that they can access it freely, like women living in the Republic. I have outlined matters truthfully to the Deputy and the Amnesty International and other groups she brought to see me that day and we are trying to find a way through it. What I am outlining in the Dáil today is the fact that eligibility for public health services is based on a person being ordinarily resident in the State. The work taking place is to find a legal way around this. I am committed to working hard on the issue with the Office of the Attorney General and keeping the Deputy up to date. It would be useful to meet her, any other interested colleague and the group to which she referred in the coming weeks.

We will be very happy to take the Minister up on the offer of a meeting. We want to see some progress. It is not as if we would have to reinvent the wheel because there are already circumstances in which health services in both jurisdictions are accessible from either side of the Border. It is possible to do this. I do not want to pour cold water on the Minister's commitment, but while we welcome the offer of a meeting, we are conscious of the fact that, albeit the numbers are small, women continue to travel. While I accept that €450 may not be a barrier for some women, it is a significant barrier for many others-----

-----and one we would like to see removed. As such, I restate Sinn Féin's commitment to work with the Minister to deliver this. I welcome the opportunity to meet him. I hope we can mark some progress at the meeting and put in place a deadline for the conclusion of the negotiations or work that must take place to be able to say with confidence that this will be delivered by a certain date.

I would like to work with the Deputy to arrive at that point also. I would also like to work with her and groups in Northern Ireland on the support the 24/7 helpline we now operate can provide for women, regardless of where they live on the island. It ensures women can talk to qualified healthcare professionals and councillors and that all of their options can be signposted in terms of how they can access services. While we are proactively promoting the existence of services in this jurisdiction, the helpline ensures there is knowledge and awareness of the existence of the services and information and support north of the Border also. We do not disagree on where we want to get to, but I need to find a way to get there. I am not the fount of all wisdom on this issue and while I have access to the Office of the Attorney General and the like, I am also happy to hear the Opposition's ideas on how we can legislate in that regard. I will be in touch to arrange the meeting with the Deputy.