The HSE has said it is in a “constant battle” to counter information from rogue pregnancy agencies targeting women in crisis pregnancies.
The Oireachtas committee examining the Eighth Amendment has heard how "disingenuous" agencies are spending vast amounts of money to outbid the State-funded organisations.
Janice Dolan, funding officer for the HSE's sexual health and crisis pregnancy programme, said women in difficulty mostly sought information online. Rogue agencies, she said, were increasing their spend on paid adverts on Google to ensure their information came up first. While the HSE was seeking to match that, rogue agencies were difficult to track as they constantly changed their names and locations.
“It is very difficult to deter women from a certain agency when you do not know where they are located. It is incredibly difficult.”
Women who attended these services were deeply traumatised but often declined to make official complaints due to the additional stress, she told the committee. She said the HSE would welcome regulation of crisis pregnancy agencies to “even the playing field in terms of transparency”.
Earlier, the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) was criticised at the committee's hearing for the information it distributes to women.
Independent Senator Ronan Mullen and Fine Gael TD Peter Fitzpatrick questioned the organisation on an investigation conducted by the Sunday Independent a number of years ago. The report cited women who regretted their abortions and blamed bad advice from State-funded agencies including the IFPA. Gardaí investigated the allegations.
Chief executive of the IFPA Niall Behan told the committee that gardaí and the HSE found no wrongdoing on the part of the organisation and the individuals concerned were embarrassed to be asked to investigate the claims. Mr Behan alleged it was a "sting" by anti-abortion activists designed for a certain outcome and to smear the work the organisation does.
The committee also discussed the availability of abortion pills and the potential difficulties arising from women accessing them online. The IFPA’s medical director, Dr Caitríona Henchion, said there were a number of risks when accessing the pills online. They might not be what they were said to be and might be unsafe or ineffective, she said.
The medicine might not work if someone was at a later gestation than they thought, she added.
Dr Henchion advised against legislation allowing for terminations on specific grounds, saying it would exclude women and therefore the current situation would continue for many. She cited the difficulties facing women in direct provision and the obstacles they endured in finding the money to travel and for the procedure.
" Irish women are having abortions every day, and we need to provide those services in Ireland. We can make sure they are properly monitored and are of high standards.
“The vast majority of abortions are occurring for socio-economic reasons. But drawing up some kind of formula to decide whether someone qualifies for an abortion on socio-economic grounds is not practical.”