THE Government will consider a controversial new law allowing teenagers as young as 16 to buy condoms -- despite not being old enough to legally have sex.
In a major report published today, the Law Reform Commission will recommend that 16 and 17-year-olds should be able to consent to and refuse medical treatment, including over-the-counter medicines, surgery and mental health services.
However, it has called for 16-year-olds to be able to access treatment, including contraception, without their parents' knowledge. This is in spite of the age of consent being 17.
The commission is also recommending that only in "exceptional circumstances" should those aged under 16 years be able to make such decisions without parental knowledge.
But in such cases, health care professionals must first assess the patient's level of maturity and encourage them to involve their parents or guardians in making the decision. In its final report on 'Children and the Law: Medical Treatment', the commission acknowledged the "complex interaction" between the rights, responsibilities and roles of parents and young people. It makes 20 recommendations aimed at clarifying the existing law in the area which allows 16 and 17-year-olds to allow or refuse treatment and ensuring young people's views are fully taken into account.
However, in recommending that 16-year-olds be able to buy contraception, it creates an anomaly as the legal age of consent in Ireland is 17 years.
Fianna Fail spokesman on children, Charlie McConalogue, welcomed the report, but said there was an issue with 16-year-olds accessing contraception. "The object of government policy has to be to try and encourage young people not to engage in sexual activity until they're ready for it and not before the legal age of consent.
"This document will be a useful contribution to what is a sensitive debate and I welcome the fact that the Law Reform Commission is looking at this issue," he added. The commission also envisages a situation where under 16s could access medical care, including contraception, without the knowledge of their parents. However, it argues that this must only happen in exceptional circumstances. It conceded that while the issue of contraception will garner much media and public attention, it stressed that its report does not make any recommendations on the wider topics of teenage pregnancy and availability of contraception.
The commission also called for those aged 16 and 17 to be presumed to have the capacity to make an advance care directive.
Such "living wills" set out what treatment a person wants to have, in the event they are incapacitated through their illness and can include directions such as not resuscitate them in event of heart failure.
However, it added that where any person under 18 refuses life-sustaining treatment, an application to the High Court would still be required."An assessment of a minor and a young person by a trained and experienced health care professional is crucial in determining capacity, rather than assuming capacity on the basis of age," said the report. The report also calls for the Mental Health Act 2001 to be amended so that a mental health tribunal rather than the District Court reviews the admission and treatment of young people under 18 years of age.