The HSE is involved in a “constant battle” against rogue crisis pregnancy agencies, the Oireachtas committee examining the Eighth Amendment has heard, writes Elaine Loughlin.
State-funded services are having to pump significant finances into countering “disingenuous” and rogue agencies who are “targeting” women online.
Janice Donlon of the HSE’s sexual health and crisis pregnancy programme told the committee that many of these agencies often change their name and location, making it more difficult to warn women in crisis not to attend them.
Responding to questions from Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly, Ms Donlon said: “What we have seen through our communications unit in the HSE, women seek information about abortion services and about crisis pregnancies primarily online, so through a Google search, and these rogue agencies, these disingenuous agencies are targeting women by increasing the spend in terms of paid AdWords on Google.”
The HSE funds counselling services that provide support for women who are experiencing a crisis pregnancy and those who have gone through with an abortion. Ms Donlon said the HSE is constantly trying to outbid rogue organisations to ensure HSE-sponsored ads appear first on search engines, but this requires substantial investment.
She added: “It is very difficult to deter women from a certain agency when you do not know where they are located. It is incredibly difficult.”
Ms Dolan said the HSE would welcome regulation of crisis pregnancy agencies to “even the playing field in terms of transparency”.
Differences of opinion between Fine Gael members of the committee were aired after Peter Fitzpatrick questioned Dr Caitriona Henchion, medical director of the Irish Family Planning Association, on the decreasing numbers of women who are now opting to have their children adopted.
Fellow Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell asked whether Mr Fitzpatrick was suggesting a Handmaid’s Tale situation whereby women in crisis pregnancies would be “detained, forced to become parents, and used as a source of supply of babies to childless people”. She said: “I have to say that’s up there with the most shocking thing I have heard today and I hope to God no one forces me into that situation, good luck to you if you do!”
Dr Henchion said difficulty in accessing or affording contraception and “inconsistent” sex education in schools are two of the most significant contributors to crisis pregnancies.
Ms O’Connell said it was a “no-brainier” that the committee should call for for universal free access to contraceptives.
Dr Henchion said there was “no question” that current laws on abortion, which include criminal charges, have a “chilling effect” and hang over doctors as a “huge threat”.
She said instead of being free and comfortable in discussions with women who facing a crisis pregnancy or contemplating an abortion, doctors are more guarded and constantly thinking of the law.
This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner.