Harris vows to regulate pregnancy counsellors

  • March 5, 2017

Crisis pregnancy counsellors will be regulated by law within the next three months, Simon Harris has promised.

The move, which was confirmed yesterday — International Women’s Day — marks the first time an Irish government has ever regulated rogue agencies offering anti-abortion advice.

Times investigation last year exposed the practice of unregulated crisis pregnancy agencies misleading women in order to talk them out of an abortion. Despite the health minister promising action last November, progress on a bill had stalled.

Mr Harris has now made regulating counsellors a government priority. A statutory instrument which will add people who describe themselves as counsellors, including for crisis pregnancies, will be brought before the Oireachtas before it breaks for its summer recess.

It is understood that a board will be set up to establish basic standards for crisis pregnancy counselling. The move means that the Women’s Centre on Berkeley Street in Dublin, which was secretly recorded telling a young women that abortion would cause breast cancer and turn her into a child abuser, could face closure.

It follows the introduction last year of a bill by Brendan Howlin, the Labour Party leader, amending legislation so that pregnancy counsellors would be added to a list of regulated professionals. After examining the law, officials in the Department of Health said that counsellors could be regulated under existing laws with a statutory instrument.

At a meeting with Mr Howlin’s party yesterday, the government promised that the legislation would be finished before the summer. “This represents progress towards putting an end to the abuse that these organisations preside over. I’m glad that the Labour Party has secured this progress on International Women’s Day,” Mr Howlin said.

The first Irish protest outside a deceptive crisis pregnancy agency took place ten years ago yesterday. However, the issue had fallen off the political agenda until The Times investigation.

Yesterday Louise O’Reilly, Sinn Féin’s health spokeswoman, asked Mr Harris to clarify what progress was being made on the legislation. The minister said the government was committed to ensuring women receive fair and accurate advice.

“I think we were all appalled by the reporting showing that wasn’t always the case, and showing rogue agencies were in operation,” Mr Harris said.

He said that the Regulation of Information Act, which restricts what information can be given about legal abortion procedures abroad, had been reviewed.

“Subject to the views of the attorney general, it may be possible to amend the act, and this is my gut on this issue, to ensure that only registered professionals provide services under the act,” he added.

Separately, Katherine Zappone, the children and youth affairs minister, said she was “not convinced” by the taoiseach’s comments that reducing the penalty for illegal abortions would benefit domestic abusers.

The Dáil is expecting to vote down a bill today which aimed to reduce the maximum penalty under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, which criminalises abortion in Ireland, from a 14-year sentence to a fine of €1.

Enda Kenny was criticised by opposition TDs after he said in the Dáil this week that the bill would mean that if “somebody kicks his pregnant partner and kills the baby she is carrying, he is to be guilty of a fine of €1”.

Ms Zappone had sought the attorney general’s advice on whether or not she could support the bill. In a statement yesterday, she said that the legal advice had been that the legislation would not be constitutional.

The aim of the People Before Profit bill was to reform abortion law without first requiring the Eighth Amendment to be repealed.

“That advice set out that in the attorney general’s view the bill, if passed, would be subject to successful challenge on the basis of unconstitutionality,” a spokesman for Ms Zappone said.

“However, Ms Zappone is not convinced by arguments that an abusive partner who causes a miscarriage intentionally would not, under the proposed bill, be liable to a higher sanction, as non-fatal offences such as assault would still apply.”