On Wednesday the 14th of September, the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly introduced a new service for women and people with uteruses between the ages of 17 to 25 residing in Ireland. This service allows them to gain access to contraceptive care and consultations free of charge. The new service is part of the government’s Women’s Health Action Plan for 2022 and 2023 meant to improve all areas of women’s healthcare to strive toward gender equality. However, on September 28th, only two weeks after the service was implemented, expenditure Michael McGrath announced that the scheme would be extended to women and people with uteruses between the ages of 16 and 30 years old. These changes will be implemented on September 1st, 2023 as announced during the presentation of budget 2023. 

The contraceptives included in this scheme are short-acting forms of contraception such as contraceptive pills, patches, and rings; long-acting reversible forms of contraception (LARCs) such as implants, hormonal injections, Intrauterine Devices or systems (IUDs or IUSs), and emergency contraceptives (like the morning-after pill). 

In the long term, this means that doctor’s appointments, prescriptions for contraceptives, consultations, fittings, removals, check-ups, and follow-ups linked to contraception will be completely free. Pre-existing charges for prescriptions will also be dropped. 

Just make sure to ask your practitioner if they’re participating in the scheme to avoid any fees.

For those who do not have or want to attend a general practitioner, the HSE plans to widen its outreach to women’s health clinics, family planning centres, and student health services in colleges. To be a beneficiary of this scheme you need a PPS number, to provide your name and address at the doctor’s as well as in the pharmacy. 

This is quite the milestone for Irish women’s health, especially their reproductive health which is increasingly understood as an issue of public well-being. Indeed, the government seems to finally address the reality for many women living in Ireland: access to contraception is unequally distributed based on income. Therefore, their choice to use contraception is based on its price rather than on their well-being. This poses incredible health risks but can also represent an added pressure on one’s income, especially with the ongoing housing and energy crises. 

The starting age for this scheme coincides with the average age of the first sexual relations for teenagers in Ireland which occurs around 17 years old. This choice embodies the progress Ireland has made morally. From a society where acknowledging teenage sexuality in education was greatly frowned upon or denied, to a country where a government-funded scheme designates sexual health for the youth as a public health issue. 

Most people aged between the ages of 16 and 30 do not yet have a stable income and are therefore even more at risk should they have an unintended pregnancy. Frequently, unintended pregnancies are terminated but the contraceptive methods recommended afterward are the same that failed the person originally. A free contraceptive scheme means that young people get to try different forms of contraception and find the one that is best suitable for their body and their specific needs. 

While the original 17 to 25 free contraception scheme was an ambitious step forward in the right direction; it did have a few blind spots that are worthy of note and have been decried by the National Women’s Council. Extending the time frame to women over the age of 25 takes into consideration those who already have children and do not want anymore or the women who simply do not want any to begin with. The cost for long-acting reversible contraception (LARCs) such as the coil or the implant or more permanent options like vasectomies and female sterilisation starts at 550 euros and can reach up to 1500 euros. Unfortunately, this is not money many 20-somethings have to spare in Ireland today. 

Furthermore, the growing accessibility of multiple contraception methods could be a potential problem as it erases the need for contact with a practitioner which is detrimental to providing the appropriate treatment for a person based on their medical history and health risks. 

The new scheme has also revived the conversation around male contraception and how the weight of the choices linked to contraception often falls on women in heterosexual relationships. An increasing number of men note feeling guilty about the weight of these decisions being pushed solely onto their partners.

It’s a great conversation to be having, but all I have to say is it’s about damn time.

Written by Tessa Ndjonkou