– Release date: 06 March 2003
On the first anniversary of the defeat of the referendum on abortion, the Irish Family Planning Association has called for new measures to regulate agencies which provide advice and information to women in crisis pregnancy situations.
While the Taoiseach has indicated that he has little appetite to deal with the substantitive issue of abortion in the foreseeable future, there are a number of related issues that should be dealt with in the legislative programme of Government. Among the areas requiring reform is the provision of information on abortion and the standards relating to the operation of counselling services. The IFPA also called for the cut made to the budget of the Crisis Pregnancy Agency this year to be reversed.
According to the IFPA, a range of 'pregnancy advice' and 'counselling agencies' are operating without the application of any minimum standards. Some of these agencies advertise themselves as providing information on all options, but in reality, they exist only to try and prevent women from travelling for abortion services. Often inflammatory videos and anti-abortion materials will be shown to women who visit these services.
"On a monthly basis, the IFPA sees women who attended such services under the impression that they could obtain non-directive counselling and information on all options. It is our experience that in spite of the distressing experience, many women, if they want to terminate their pregnancy, will go ahead with their decision.
"We are concerned, however, that some women could be seriously intimidated by their experience. In such instances, they may self-refer for an abortion and upon their return home fail to secure important medical after-care because they do not know what service they can trust.
"Less than four years ago, the spotlight fell on these advice agencies after the High Court ruled that the founder of an unnamed pregnancy advice agency had taken unlawful custody of a baby born to a college student. At the time the Minister for Health committed himself to examining the potential to regulate counselling services. There was also broad Opposition support for some basic statutory compliance criteria for these services. However, nothing has materialised in the interim.
"It is now time for the Government to bring forward statutory regulation for all pregnancy advice and counselling services, prescribing minimum codes of practice and standards, to ensure that they do not impart misleading and incorrect advice. In addition, it should be mandatory for all services to register with a recognised authority. The remit of the Crisis Pregnancy Agency could be extended to enable it to act as the statutory regulator for these services.
"At present, the only crisis pregnancy services that are regulated are non-directive services, such as that provided by the IFPA. Under the Regulation of Information Act, 1995, non-directive agencies may only provide information on a face-to-face basis and there is an obligation to provide information on all options. Pregnancy advice and counselling services which do not provide abortion information are not restricted in any way.
"The IFPA looks forward to the results of the work underway by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency into setting minimum standards, including staff training, for agencies who receive funding. However, even if standards are put in place by the agency, bogus services who do not receive State funding will continue to operate as they see fit. It is critical that the Government takes responsibility for setting criteria for all services."
The IFPA also said that it was regrettable that the Taoiseach has decided to take a hands-off approach to abortion. "In December, he said that 'we have debated the issue non-stop for five years and we need a rest for a while' (All Party Committee on the Constitution, December 17th 2002). However, the reality is that women are still travelling to the UK for terminations everyday, doctors still continue to work in a legal limbo and the prospect of another 'C Case' or 'X Case' continues to loom.
"Even if there is not the political will to deal with the substantive issue of abortion, it is timely to address the situation around advice and information," said the IFPA.
Crisis Pregnancy Agency Budget Cut
The IFPA also condemned the cut to this year’s budget for the Crisis Pregnancy Agency. "This time last year, when the abortion referendum was taking place, the Government made a significant issue of the fact that 6.5 million euro had been ring-fenced on an annual basis to fund the work of the Crisis Pregnancy Agency.
After only a year in existence and with a huge mountain to climb in terms of devising programmes and strategies to reduce crisis pregnancies, it is reprehensible that the Government has already began to pull resources from the agency."