From this month, Irish women between the ages of 17 and 25 will enjoy free access to contraception. Michael Bergin explores the impact this new legislation will have.
In November 2021, as part of the plans for Budget 2022, it was announced by the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly TD, that contraception would be made available to women between the ages of 17 and 25, free of charge, from last August.
The legislation is based on a motion from Green Party TD Pauline O’Reilly, first passed in early 2021.
As part of the plan, two doctor’s consultations per year on contraceptive options will also be granted to women, entirely free of charge. The scheme will serve to complement the existing National Condom Distribution Service, and will come at a cost of €18 to €22 million.
A nominal €1.50 prescription charge will apply, though the fitting and removal of long-term implants will be provided free of charge.
“We had one of the first condom machines in the South of Ireland, and that was illegal at the time.”
Speaking to the University Observer on the new legislation, UCDSU Welfare Officer Míde Nic Fhionnlaoich welcomed the move. “UCDSU has always been a big supporter of contraception, even when it was illegal”, she begins, “we had one of the first condom machines in the South of Ireland, and that was illegal at the time. We got into a fair bit of trouble, but it was worth it to get [contraception] to students, and it will always be worth it to get it to students.” She states that “we definitely welcome the introduction of free contraception.”
The act was introduced specifically for women between the ages of 17 and 25, after research identified this cohort as facing the largest amount of cost barriers to contraception. However, as Nic Fhionnlaoich makes clear, this is far from the only reason that this legislation is pertinent to students.
“People coming to college, a lot of them are becoming sexually active for the first time, and the cost barriers to accessing contraception have long been an issue for students.” Going further, she adds that “For me as Welfare Officer, it's really important that anyone coming to me has the choice to decide whether they want to go on hormonal contraception, and that cost isn’t a barrier for that.”
In the wake of the act coming into force, UCD’s health and counselling service have announced that they intend to comply fully with the legislation.
“People coming to college, a lot of them are becoming sexually active for the first time, and the cost barriers to accessing contraception have long been an issue for students.”
Long-term contraceptive procedures such as the implant will be available to students free of charge. Other long-term options such as the coil will not be available from UCD, as at present the student health clinic “is not equipped with the required specialised resources and infrastructure to perform this procedure.”
In addition, all appointment fees, which generally amount to €25, are expected to be waived for contraceptive procedures. Medications and devices will be free of charge through participating pharmacies.
However, the Student Health Service, in conversation with the Observer, have let it be known that “should additional issues arise in the consultation process unrelated to contraception, students will be charged appropriately for this extra care.”
Ireland’s relationship with contraception has long been a fraught, uneasy and divisive topic, since it was formally made illegal by the state in 1935. In the early 1970’s, liberalising societal forces clashed with the rigid order of the state, when the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement organised the infamous “contraceptive train” demonstration in May 1971. This event, in which 49 women travelled by train to Belfast, bought large amounts of contraception, and then returned to Dublin generated public outcry, though ignited the discussion surrounding Irish access to contraception.
“Most students coming into college haven’t had adequate sexual education.”
Eventually, in 1980, this ban was repealed, and through various liberalising reforms since, we have now arrived at a stage where contraception will be totally subsidised by the government for an enormous swathe of the population. However, in the view of Nic Fhionnlaoich, there is still more to be done, particularly in the field of education.
“I think we’ve still a long way to go as a country” she asserts, “most students coming into college haven’t had adequate sexual education. We try to bridge the gap as best we can in third level, but it really should be starting in primary school and secondary school.”
There is, nonetheless, a wider message to take from the act. “I do think it does signal a bit of a culture change, in saying that this is healthcare, and everyone should have their right to it.”
Inevitably, every decision made in government has an opportunity cost, and moves that are widely welcomed, such as this, are no exception. When questioned on the ways in which the new legislation can be built on and improved, Nic Fhionnlaoich is not short on ideas.
“I think, from here, we do need clarity on the provision of contraception for trans people, for people who may not identify as women, and ensure that if they can benefit from this, that they should be able to, and that they shouldn’t have any barriers to access.”
“I do think it does signal a bit of a culture change, in saying that this is healthcare, and everyone should have their right to it.”
Furthermore, the sex education bill, currently making its way through the houses of the Oireachtas, is highlighted. “It’s really important to get that over the line, its really important that we have proper sexual education reform, and that it is secular, from the state, and covers all the ways in which people express their sexuality in Ireland.”
The implementation of this new legislation is sure to earn the coalition praise in the coming weeks, though away from the world of politics, it is representative of an Ireland changing with ever-increasing speed. Since contraception was first made legal in 1980, this “Irish solution to an Irish problem” has been built on, though, as Nic Fhionnlaoich makes clear, there is still much more to do.