Ministers defend decision not to extend free contraception to girls under 17

Government could be open to legal challenges if it went below age of consent, Butler says

Government Ministers have defended their decision not to provide free contraception to girls under 17.

The provision of free contraception to women aged 17-25 was announced in this year’s budget, as part of a phased introduction of the service to all women.

At a post-budget briefing on Thursday, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly faced questions on why the measure was not being extended to younger girls.

Mr Donnelly said he was open to looking at this, but said “you [have] to start somewhere”.

Minister of State at the department, Mary Butler, then pointed out that the age of consent is 17, and said the Government could be open to legal challenges if it "went lower".

Mr Donnelly said it would have been unthinkable to introduce free contraception in this manner in the past.

“We’ve never done anything like it before, it’s a really positive measure.” But it was also “expensive”, with a full-year cost of €28 million.

“It’s a big first step, an important first step. We’re putting women’s health front and centre.”

Advice

Asked whether the attorney general had provided legal advice on the issue, Mr Donnelly said “there may have been” advice sought by his officials but he had not seen it.

“Seventeen is the age of consent and that was the recommendation.”

Ms Butler said she was not aware of any advice from the attorney general but knew about the age of consent as she is the mother of three students.

She said she has not spoken to the attorney general on the issue and added that Mr Donnelly “got it completely right” in setting the age threshold at 17.

This is the first year this measure has been offered, she pointed out, and it would be “kept under review” in future.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times