Lack of outcry over advice by crisis pregnancy agencies is extraordinary
Sometimes politicians deserve praise. This week, both the Seanad and the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children acted in the public interest. There was cross-party co-operation in raising important questions about allegedly illegal and potentially life-threatening advice given by State-funded crisis pregnancy counselling agencies.
The allegations made in the Seanad last Wednesday on foot of a report in the Irish Independent are extremely serious. It is alleged that some counsellors gave information about how to illegally smuggle the abortion pill into Ireland, and advised women to take it without medical supervision. It was also alleged some counsellors told women they should falsify their medical histories to claim they had a miscarriage in the event of post-abortion complications. It is extraordinary that there has not been an outcry from women’s organisations, such as the National Women’s Council of Ireland. What is even more extraordinary is that neither Minister for Health James Reilly nor Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has taken action.
This year in Britain, an undercover operation by the Daily Telegraph that revealed breaches of the abortion law resulted in immediate action by the then health secretary Andrew Lansley. In the Republic, agencies funded by the Crisis Pregnancy Programme, which is part of the Health Service Executive, are governed by the Regulation of Information (Services Outside the State For Termination of Pregnancies) Act. The Irish law is very clear.
In one-to-one situations, information, advice and counselling must be given on all options available to the pregnant woman – that is, it must include information on parenting and adoption. This information must fully inform the woman on all options and must not be accompanied by any advocacy or promotion of abortion. The alleged advice to smuggle and take the abortion pill is in clear breach of the law.
It is striking how little coverage of this issue there has been by other media organisations. In what other matter concerning alleged law-breaking by State-funded organisations, and a potential threat to women’s lives would there be so little follow-up?
It is impossible not to note the contrast with the extensive coverage of “rogue” counselling agencies that sought to mislead women into using their services, but did so because of an anti-abortion stance. The CPP, in its former incarnation as the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, had a sustained campaign against rogue agencies.
At the launch of its 2005 report, the CPA announced an accredited course for counsellors. The then chair of the CPA, Olive Braiden, said: “We are very concerned about the counselling approaches in rogue agencies and we hope that through the promotion of this accreditation that women will be guided to the agencies funded by the State, which provide good, non-directional services.” If the allegations made in the Seanad are true, what else would you call an agency that flouts the law, and potentially puts women’s lives at risk, except a rogue agency?
Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone, a solicitor, made the point well. “As a woman, it is horrific to think women are being advised to withhold information from their general practitioners, who would find it difficult to advise their patients properly without full information. The journalist concerned [Gemma O’Doherty] should be commended for posing questions which are both legitimate and in the public interest. Have the counsellors who face these allegations been suspended while an inquiry is ongoing? Is the inquiry being properly conducted?”
If not, why not? The mandate of the Crisis Pregnancy Programme funded by the State includes securing a “reduction in the number of women with crisis pregnancies who opt for abortion by offering services and support which make other options more attractive”.
The Oireachtas health committee has written to the HSE, urgently requesting responses to questions such as whether a formal investigation has started, and if so, what are the terms of reference and timescale. Will it look at HSE responsibilities, or just those of the agencies? Is the HSE aware of any Garda investigation, or of any internal review in the named counselling providers? And what has it been doing about the allegations in the weeks since it received the transcripts and audio files of the undercover investigation, long in advance of publication by a newspaper?
Women deserve better. Any woman in crisis regarding a pregnancy is entitled to the best care and attention. If, instead, she is offered illegal and potentially dangerous information, her rights are being abused.