Sunday 20 January 2019

Lorraine Courtney: 'Best way to reduce abortions? Free contraceptives for all'

Health Minister Simon Harris. Picture: Fergal Phillips
Health Minister Simon Harris. Picture: Fergal Phillips
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

We have had the debate about whether women have the right to end their pregnancies should they choose to, and now we must ensure that money isn't a problem for those who want to avoid getting pregnant in the first place.

Birth control is one of the greatest inventions of the modern world, and Health Minister Simon Harris had promised to increase access to free contraception alongside new abortion services. The Government must do this soon. Contraception is already free in much of Europe - though not Spain or Ireland.

Just before the referendum on the Eighth Amendment, an expert group was tasked with considering what kind of contraception should be available and if it would be possible for the State to pay for long-term reversible female contraceptives. The expert group is still considering these issues and the HSE is preparing to provide free condoms. The Government is also considering giving out free condoms from vending machines in bars and clubs.

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Giving women autonomy over their bodies and allowing them to choose to start a family if and when they are ready is one of the most enlightened, progressive things any country can provide for its citizens.

Making contraception free means that everyone is able to plan ahead, work out what their priorities are and focus on education, career or any one of the hundreds of other things a women might want to do before or instead of having a baby.

Contraception is a vital part of women's health care and does so much more than just prevent pregnancy. Endometriosis. Regulation of menstrual cycles. Acne. Dysmenorrhea. Polycystic ovary syndrome. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder. All of these conditions are treated by contraception and all might go untreated when women can't afford it.

Sexual activity is a healthy part of being a normal human. Contraception helps couples plan their families and be the best parents they can be. And we know that widespread access to contraception can reduce unwanted pregnancy rates.

A few years ago, researchers at Washington University wondered what would happen if women had access to all contraceptives for free. Over three years, they gave 9,000 women in the St Louis area access to free contraceptives. Study participants could choose from birth control pills or more long-acting contraceptives, like the implantable IUDs. Three in four women chose the latter.

The researchers published their results in 2012 and reported dramatic differences between those in the study, and those outside of it. Teen pregnancies - 80pc of which are unintended - fell. They stood at 6.3 per 1,000 teens in the study group, compared to 34 per 1,000 teens nationally.

Abortion rates were significantly lower, too. In the St Louis area, 13.4 per 1,000 women had an abortion in 2010. Among the women involved in this study, the rate stood at 5.9 per 1,000 women.

Study after study shows that the only solution to reducing abortions and teen pregnancies is to give women access to effective contraception.

A future Irish programme must support all kinds of contraception - we should ensure that free vasectomies are available for men.

Some people might argue that taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for a person's choice to have non-procreative sex. If you don't want a child, some might say, pay for your own contraception or don't have sex. But family planning is a social, as well as a personal requirement in our world.

We know that contraception allows women to take better care of themselves and their families, support themselves financially and finish their education. In other words, allowing women to care for their own reproductive needs helps everyone in our society.

Right now we have a bizarre situation where Irish women have access to maternity care and abortion for free - but not contraception. That's crazy.

Contraception is basic healthcare and should be free for everyone who needs it, regardless of their reason.

Irish Independent

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