The abuse of women by rogue agencies must be brought to a stop – Howlin
I move that the Health and Social Care Professionals (Amendment) Bill 2016 be read a second time.
About 10 years ago, a small organisation came into existence called Choice Ireland.
It was founded after a public meeting on the 8th amendment organised by Labour Youth.
During their period of activity, I have no doubt that they helped move the conversation in Ireland along considerably.
And one of the actions they undertook, was to highlight the extent to which rogue agencies were lying to women in crisis pregnancy agencies.
I know one of the women involved in that group very well – Sineád Ahern is the chairperson of Labour Women nowadays.
She was one of a small number of women who went undercover to determine the true extent of what was going on.
When speaking on this issue recently, Sineád noted her shock to discover that these same agencies were still operating a decade later.
Somehow, we all collectively looked away for a few years.
And it took the brave work of Ellen Coyne and Catherine Sanz of The Times to bring our focus back– to the lies, the deceipt, the grotesque mistruths being told to women in crisis pregnancy situations.
It’s not enough for us to express horror and outrage, and then for the issue to disappear once more.
To do so would leave these rogue agencies operating for another decade, abusing countless women when they most need care and support.
It is no longer tenable to stand over a situation where dieticians and opticians must be regulated, but those counselling women in vulnerable situations face no such requirement.
It is not good enough for us to continue to stand over a position where women are being lied to in the most grotesque fashion, at a time of exceptional vulnerability.
Women in crisis pregnancy situations are being told that abortion increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer, or that women who have had abortions will later abuse or neglect their children.
These are lies told to scare; to humiliate; to denigrate women.
And most of all, to prevent them from having access to the impartial information they are entitled to.
We are long past time for an honest conversation about gender equality in Ireland.
We continue to hear a litany of statistics about the enduring problem of domestic violence in this country.
We heard again this morning about the persistence of a 20% pay gap between the genders.
Too many women remain in low-paid, insecure work.
Too few women are breaking through the glass ceiling of senior roles in the public and private sectors.
And of course access to affordable childcare in Ireland for every family still looks like a distant dream.
We have more women in this House than ever before.
‘Waking the Feminists’ are doing exceptional work to improve the position of women in theatre in Ireland.
There are other efforts to increase the number of women on state boards, in academia, in science careers, and elsewhere.
But we are a long way from equality.
We need to have a broader discussion about these matters.
The discussion is happening outside this chamber.
It is time we started a frank discussion in here also.
Today, of course, we are dealing with one way in which we permit the mistreatment of women in Ireland.
Rectifying this problem won’t solve all of the other issues.
But even the elimination of this one injustice will represent a step towards equality.
And every step on that journey matters.
For all the reasons I have outlined, I believe that new legislation is needed to regulate this situation.
We in the Labour Party have chosen the Health and Social Care Professionals Act as the vehicle for my proposed reform.
That Act applies to the newer health and social care professions, outside the traditional core sectors of medicine and nursing.
The Act establishes registration boards for those designated professions.
It protects the use of the titles of those professions.
And it provides for the resolution of complaints relating to fitness to practice.
Now I know that there may be some practical difficulties in applying this Act to crisis pregnancy counsellors.
I have discussed my proposal several times with the Minister for Health Simon Harris and with his officials.
I acknowledge and appreciate that the Minister is anxious to cooperate on this Bill and to accommodate what he recognises as much needed reform in this area, and that he has instructed his Department accordingly.
As I understand it, the problem from an administrative perspective is this.
The Health and Social Care Professionals Act applies automatically to certain professions that are directly designated in the legislation itself.
These include, for example, chiropodists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and psychologists.
These professions already have what you might call the infrastructure of a recognised and regulated profession – a defined scope of practice, a representative professional body, defined routes of entry, recognised qualifications.
The Act then goes on to enable the Minister by regulation to designate additional health and social care professions.
He does so by reference to these stipulated factors.
In other words, he assesses whether the profession has in place the infrastructure to enable it to be regulated.
Normally speaking, the path towards recognition and designation might take months if not years, involving consultation, assessment, the satisfying of pre-conditions, and so on.
I propose in my Bill to fast-track this process for pregnancy counselling.
I am proposing to amend the Act so as to include these professionals in the category of those directly designated by the Act itself.
I do so unashamedly and for a reason that is in fact spelled out in section 4 (4) (e) of the 2005 Act.
In deciding whether it is appropriate and in the public interest that a particular health or social care profession should be designated, we as legislators insisted in that section that regard must be had to “the degree of risk to the health, safety or welfare of the public from incompetent, unethical or impaired practice of the profession”.
That is the factor I want to home in on, and that is the reason for my fast-track proposals.
I believe that giving incompetent, unethical and impaired advice or counselling to vulnerable women with crisis pregnancies presents an unacceptable risk to their health, safety and welfare.
In these circumstances, I don’t believe we have time for the more leisurely route.
I believe immediate action is warranted.
As I say, I know that the Minister and his officials share this concern and they have signalled that they are anxious to work cooperatively to secure a way forward.
A Departmental consultation process is already underway in respect of counselling generally, but crisis pregnancy counselling has not as yet been specified as a separate social care profession.
I recognise that there are practical hurdles.
But if we do nothing and simply await developments, then I don’t believe we will see, in any acceptable framework of time, the necessary criteria being satisfied by the profession itself.
We won’t see agreement on a defined scope of practice, we won’t see a representative professional body, we won’t see agreement on recognised qualifications.
It may be, when we have had an opportunity to consider this further in committee, that we will find a solution that combines aspects of this body of legislation with another Act that I had an involvement with when I served as Minister for Health.
That is the Regulation of Information (Services outside the State for Termination of Pregnancies) Act 1995.
That Act arose from the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The amendment enshrines in the Constitution that Article 40.3.3º cannot be used to limit the freedom to receive and impart information about services available in another state, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law.
The 1995 Act lays down those conditions.
It seeks to reflect an appropriate balance between the constitutional rights and freedoms bearing on the question of abortion information.
The Supreme Court had decided in a number of cases that the dissemination of information on abortion, such as the name, address and telephone number of a foreign abortion service and the method of communication with it, was unconstitutional.
But the European Court of Human Rights had held that these Supreme Court injunctions were in breach of Article 10 of the European Convention, relating to freedom of expression and the right to receive and impart information.
The legislation we passed to give effect to the Fourteenth Amendment sought to clarify the legal entitlements and obligations of persons and agencies who give abortion information, and to ensure that any doctor or advice agency that provides abortion information to pregnant women does so only in the context of full counselling on all of the available options, without any advocacy or promotion of abortion.
From discussing the matter with the Minister’s officials, I understand that he and they emphasise section 5 of the Act.
That section applies to anyone who engages in the activity of giving information, advice or counselling to individual members of the public in relation to pregnancy.
The section says that, where such a person is requested by a pregnant woman to give information, advice or counselling in relation to her particular circumstances, it is not lawful for the person to give what is called ‘Act information’ to the woman unless the information, counselling and advice are ‘truthful and objective’.
The Department’s view is that a rogue counselling agency may well be in breach of that statutory requirement.
In other words, it may be found that the information it provides is not truthful or objective.
I have no problem with that, so far as it goes.
But it is important to bear in mind that the scope of the 1995 Act is confined to a specific type of information – what it calls ‘Act information’.
And this is defined as information which is likely to be required by women in availing themselves of pregnancy termination services.
In other words, ‘Act information’ relates back to the subject matter of the original Supreme Court injunctions: the name, address and telephone number of a foreign abortion service, and so on.
Thus, as then Minister for Health Michael Noonan pointed out at second stage of that Bill in this House, the Act does not apply to more general information, such as information about the nature of abortion.
So, if a rogue agency, which sought to restrict access to abortion, provided women with information that was objectively untruthful – and in some cases we have heard of, wildly untruthful – then it seems to me that the agency is not in breach of the 1995 legislation because it is not providing information required by women in order to avail of pregnancy termination services.
In fact, quite clearly, it is seeking to do exactly the opposite, to provide information that will impede access to such services.
So, I don’t think the 1995 Act covers the issue which my Bills seeks to address.
If it did, I would have hoped to see a prosecution on the matter long before now.
The rogue agencies are operating in an unregulated environment, unaffected and unimpeded by either the 2005 or the 1995 Acts.
I do recognise the Minister’s problem with the 2005 Act, as I believe he recognises mine with the 1995 Act.
But we are dealing with each other in good faith on this issue and we are, I believe, jointly determined to arrive at a satisfactory resolution.
Above all, we are agreed, as I think the Dáil by consensus is agreed, that the abuse of women by rogue agencies must be brought to a stop.
As I said at the outset,
Agencies disseminating misinformation are abusers.
It’s time we all worked together to put their abuse to an end.
I commend the Bill to the House.