Many steps forward have been taken for women in Ireland in recent years. Conversations about gender inequality, from areas as far-ranging as female opportunities in STEM, our right to bodily autonomy and sexual violence against Irish women, are ongoing, with slow but notable changes taking place along the way. Such change has been undeniably positive, with one significant example being the decision this year to include a free contraception scheme for women between the ages of 17 and 25 in the 2022 Budget, as secured by the Department of Health. Coming into effect this August, the target age group for this scheme was based on those who tend to have the most barriers to contraception; students and young women at an age where they are less likely to be completely financially independent yet.
The benefits of this scheme’s implementation are invaluable; breaking down obstacles around effective contraception for young women, including accessibility, education, and cost. With cost arguably being the biggest hurdle to be knocked down by this decision, women availing of the opportunity can potentially save hundreds of euros on contraception over the course of a few years. The scheme includes the cost of prescriptive contraception, the fitting or removal of various long-acting contraceptives and a maximum of two consultations per year with a GP or other doctor in relation to finding a suitable contraception method. The methods of contraception that are available through this scheme are various contraceptive pills, IUDs, the bar, and contraceptive injections. The scheme also importantly covers the cost of training and certification of medical professionals to fit or remove contraception. Meaning that, not only will contraception be more affordable for women, but waiting lists for fittings and removals will not be too extensive.
Improvements are being seen for sure. This is one of many wins in recent years for Irish women and, with a noticeably decent rate of advancement, it is certainly shaping up to not be the last. However, while it is easy to get wrapped up in the positivity of progressive changes, being aware of failures and unmet promises has proved to be just as important as celebrating success.
Abortion becoming legal in Ireland was among the most notable steps forward for the country concerning women’s rights and showed a remarkable change in attitude in what has, historically, been considered an extremely conservative country. In 2018, the success of the referendum in favour of overturning the Eighth Amendment was a moment of pride and relief for a lot of women, with The Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 officially being signed into law on the 20th of December that year. The new legislation permitted abortion requests for up to 12 weeks of pregnancy — as long as a three-day waiting period took place — as well as abortions due to a pregnancy that put the woman’s life at risk and in cases of fatal feotal abnormality. The service is free of charge. However, should you have been fortunate enough to never have had to avail of the service, you may not be aware of the myriad of challenges that are still in the way of those seeking an abortion in 2022.
“Being aware of failures or unmet promises has proved to be just as important as celebrating the success.”
The reason I want to introduce this into conversation is, firstly, to shed light on a conversation that ended in the public eye too soon. The widespread discussion of abortion should not have ended once the referendum had passed and been left to pro-choice groups to keep watch on. But, for the majority in Ireland, it did. Naturally, those who were not directly affected by the decision allowed the topic to slip to the back of their minds. Of course, conversations like this resurface occasionally as news flows in on the topic from other countries, such as the Roe v. Wade ruling in the United States. This ruling sparked discourse on abortion in Ireland again, with anti-abortion protests being organised in Dublin with alarming speed after the news arrived here. Supporters of the pro-choice movement in Ireland expressed outrage at the decision and were very sympathetic to those affected. There was an outpouring of love and support from Ireland, a country that sets an example by supporting its women’s rights to bodily autonomy by law. However, while resparking such an important conversation is critical, in cases of comparison such as this one, we tend to focus too much on what we have done right and overlook things that need to be improved.
The problems with abortion services in Ireland were highlighted as recently as this April, when the Director of the NWC (National Women’s Council of Ireland), Orla O’Connor, highlighted them to the Oireachtas Health Committee. A major issue the NWC presented included the fact that only 7% of GPs are registered with the unplanned pregnancy service that provides abortions to the general public: an HSE service called My Options. Not only does this limit the options for where a woman can go for an abortion, as the likelihood of her regular GP being registered with My Options is less than a 1 in 10 chance, it also presents a significant obstacle for women in rural Ireland who are even less likely to have a GP in their area, nevermind their regular practitioner. Some of the other concerns raised were ones that contributed to the aforementioned issue, such as GPs reporting that they do not feel supported enough by local maternity units, with only 10 maternity units in Ireland providing abortion services at the time of the meeting.
“Pushing for change and making breakthroughs in changing legislation cannot be where the fight ends…”
Many specific system failures within our abortion system continue to exist despite the awareness of them. The flaws in the abortion system not being criticised more widely represents a harmful social pattern in the way we seem to advocate for progressive growth. Pushing for change and making breakthroughs in changing legislation cannot be where the fight ends; it is only half of the battle. Following through includes criticising and revising what has happened so far and then more discussion once flaws are identified to make continuous and concrete improvements. Importantly, this conversation has to remain in the public consciousness for necessary amendments to be made quickly and to ensure that it is not just up to representative groups to try to convince both the government and the public that they should still care.
I am not trying to suggest that the free contraceptive scheme has failed before it has even begun. My point comes down to the fact that to fully take advantage of the opportunities we are given in any space where politics can truly improve our lives, we have to follow it through properly and do our best to stay socially aware. The new scheme will likely be a huge success and will improve the lives of many young women. What is important is that we pay attention to the positive impact as much as we look out for unexpected obstacles, such as the fact that there might be high demand for the scheme in places in Ireland that are not fully equipped to keep up, as we are seeing with abortion services in rural Ireland. As progress is made in our country, our role does not end when changes are made, but when they are followed through. We owe it to ourselves to celebrate the idea of positive changes, but also to be aware and critical of the real-life implementation of them, and recognize that progress only stops when we do.