Vending machines may be used to distribute free condoms, says HSE

Harris says 2019 legislative priority to make female contraception more widely available

The use of vending machines in pubs, nightclubs and universities is being considered as a means of distributing free condoms to "at risk" groups and young people around Ireland.

The Health Service Executive has said there will be "targeted investment" in 2019 to ensure the provision of free condoms as part of funding for a number of additional recommendations made as part of the Oireachtas committee examination of the Eighth Amendment.

This extra funding may be used to set up vending machines with free condoms to provide "expanded access" to those most at risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or experiencing an unplanned pregnancy, said a Department of Health spokeswoman.

The HSE and department will be conducting research in early 2019 to examine how best to develop a “sustainable distribution model” for building wider access to condoms outside of clinics. As part of this research, the HSE will determine which forms of contraceptives should be made freely available to women.

The HSE is also set to carry out a new “in-depth national survey” on sexual health and crisis pregnancy, the first of its kind since 2010. There will be sexual health promotion training for professionals in the youth sector, targeted outreach programmes and campaigns for at risk groups along with the promotion of sexual health and safer-sex public advertising, said the department spokeswoman. This will include the dissemination of information through the new website launched earlier this year.

Minister for Health Simon Harris said on Monday that he wanted to do everything he could to reduce crisis pregnancies including providing greater access to free contraception.

Speaking at a press briefing for the new 24/7 crisis pregnancy helpline which goes live on Tuesday, Mr Harris said January 1st would mark a “very significant day” for women’s healthcare in Ireland. He said the helpline would be staffed by counsellors and nurses who will provide women with all the options available during a crisis pregnancy including access to abortion services. He added that it would take time for the new services to “fully evolve and fully embed”.

Commenting on the proposal to provide free condoms in vending machines, Mr Harris said all efforts would be made to support crisis pregnancies, promote safer sex and tackle and reduce the prevalence of STIs in Ireland. “There’s significant evidence available that the greater access and availability to contraception, the greater impact you can make on tackling those issues.”

Helpline staff

He added that one of his “legislative priorities” for 2019 was to make female contraception more widely available.

“But what I can say to women across this country is that the services on offer tomorrow will be so much better than what we have in our country today where we can’t provide that support, we can’t provide those options.”

Asked if the helpline would be adequately staffed to cope with demand, Mr Harris replied that it was not possible to predict the level of demand. “Remember there are lots of different options and different women will make different decisions and we trust women to make choices and decisions. That’s very much what our referendum was about.”

Mr Harris confirmed that about 165 GPs had signed up so far to provide abortion services while more than 100 GPs had given their details to the helpline. “This means from tomorrow when a woman picks up the phone and looks for her options there will be many, many locations across the country where you can access this service. About 80 per cent of terminations are likely to take place in the community. I am satisfied that we have enough doctors in place to commence the services.”