‘Dangerous’ pregnancy advice clinics face regulation

Bogus crisis pregnancy agencies are set to be outlawed after the government last night committed to a major overhaul of how abortion information is regulated.

It is the first time a government has moved to shut down crisis pregnancy agencies which give inaccurate or misleading advice. It follows an investigation by The Times that exposed a clinic run by a Catholic anti-abortion group claiming that terminations could cause breast cancer and turn women into child abusers. The Women’s Centre on Berkeley Street in Dublin is now at the centre of a gardai investigation.

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Simon Harris, the health minister, has announced a full review of the Regulation of Information Act, which restricts what women can be told about abortion services outside the state.

The review will run at the same time that a bill, which would regulate all crisis pregnancy counsellors, is making its way through the Oireachtas. The legislation, which has cross-party support, passed the second stage of the Dail last night and will now be examined at the health committee within ten weeks.

Mr Harris said that he was not opposing the bill, brought forward by Labour, because he found the revelations of The Times investigation “disgusting and despicable.”

“It was repulsive, spineless, unacceptable to any right thinking person. It should not and will not be tolerated,” he said.

Mr Harris said he was “not convinced” that the bill, which would add crisis pregnancy counsellors to a regulated list of health and social care professionals, was the best way to crack down on misleading advice being given to pregnant women.

This week he backed down on plans to delay the bill for six months because he feared that it would send the “wrong signal”. The government has committed to amending and strengthening it at committee stage.

Department of Health officials are now examining the Regulation of Information Act 1995, which restricts what crisis agencies can tell women who are considering whether to continue a pregnancy. The spirit of the bill is to restrict how much information women can access about safe and legal abortions abroad, though maternity hospital staff have raised concerns about it gagging doctors.

Section 5 of the act said that information given must be accurate and objective. Mr Harris had called on gardai to investigate the Women’s Centre.

Clare Daly, the independent TD for Dublin Fingal, reported the centre to gardai as she believed it had breached the Regulation of Information Act.

Brendan Howlin, the Labour leader, said that he believed the clinic was not in breach of section 5 of the act because the legislation was intended to regulate information on how to access an abortion in the UK rather than general information about abortion.

Mr Howlin, who introduced the bill, called for regulating crisis pregnancy counsellors to be fast-tracked on public interest grounds during a Dail debate on the legislation last night.

“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,” Mr Howlin said.

The Labour leader has committed to working with the health minister to progress the legislation.

Billy Kelleher, the Fianna Fail health spokesman, said he hoped that either the bill or the review of the information act would lead to a swift increase in regulation on crisis pregnancy counsellors.

“I hope whichever route is eventually taken is speedy and that it doesn’t flounder between these two sides,” Mr Kelleher said.

Mattie McGrath, the independent TD for Tipperary, questioned the motives behind the bill and said that he would be opposing it. He called on Mr Harris to condemn the Irish Family Planning Association, because of advice it was exposed as giving in undercover investigation by anti-abortion activists, which was given to a newspaper several years ago.

The association, which is publicly funded, was investigated but no charges were brought. Mr McGrath suggested that Mr Harris’ career was at risk if he did not condemn the association.

“You were well able to be very strong against the other side,” Mr McGrath said.

Ruth Coppinger, the Anti-Austerity Alliance TD for Dublin West, proposed including those involved in sex education in new legislation because of anecdotal evidence of anti-abortion groups travelling to schools and making incorrect claims about abortion and sex.

In the Times investigation, a counsellor at the Women’s Centre on Berkeley Street in Dublin was recorded saying that a foetus at six weeks’ gestation could feel more pain than an adult woman and that an abortion would cause frigidity and suicidal tendencies. Peter Boylan, chair of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, described the claims by the counsellor as “outrageous, dangerous and inaccurate”.

The centre is linked to the Good Counsel Network, a Catholic anti-abortion group that holds protests outside clinics in Britain and has defended the Magdalene laundries. It is also connected to a man who was found in a 1999 High Court case to have used a similar clinic to illegally adopt a baby from a woman who had been talked out of an abortion.