MANY people were surprised when the Government announced last year that funding had been secured for free contraception for women aged 17 to 25.
For some, it was a highlight of Budget 2022’s provisions, a glimmer of recognition for young people who often feel left behind when it comes to top-level decision-making. For others, it was even more monumental.
In 2019, a survey by the United Nations found that 11% of women in Ireland were facing an “unmet need” - understood to be cost - for contraception. The birth control industry is a lucrative one, with the European market alone forecast to grow to over €9bn by 2027, according to Market Data Forecast.
On average, women who take an oral contraceptive pill pay between €130-200 for their prescriptions in Ireland every year. While IUDs last longer, women who choose to go down that route face costs of up to €320 up front. Emergency contraception, known as the morning after pill, is usually priced at around €35.
So, when it was announced last year that young women would no longer face these costs in Ireland come September, 2022, the news was welcomed with open arms.
The rollout is now underway. We asked young Cork women what the move would mean to them.
“This is taking the privilege out of the question. Contraception is very expensive, especially the morning after pill,” says 21-year-old Bandon native Fionnuala Murphy.
“This decision really allows women to be safe. It gives us the freedom to be sexually active.”
Some have criticised the new scheme, but Fionnuala and her peers believe that the move can help reduce the stigma around buying contraceptives.
“You’re seen as promiscuous, even though every girl deals with this problem, and it is usually left to women. It’s up to us to protect ourselves,” the UCC student says.
“I think everyone on every end of the spectrum, conservative or liberal, would agree that this move makes sense. It’s not going to change how sexually active someone is, it’s just going to make it safer.”
Kinsale native Niamh O’Sullivan, aged 22, feels similar.
“The onus is kind of on women because you don’t need to see a doctor to buy condoms but you do for any other option and I’m very paranoid, so I always use two forms of contraception,” Niamh says.
“I’ve always been quite lucky because my friends are all open and there’s no judgement between any of us. My mum is also so supportive. But there is a lot of criticism out there.
“People may say 17 is too young to be using contraception but isn’t 17 too young to have a child? I understand that some might people think 17 is too young to have sex but it is happening and it’s normal. Preaching abstinence doesn’t work so why not encourage people to have safe sex instead.”
Niamh has recently moved to the Netherlands to study for her MA. Describing the introduction of free contraception, she said; “It’s such a big step forward for Ireland.
“I spend €55 every six months to see the doctor and about €30 for the prescriptions.
“I tried Implanon as well for a while and that was nearly €300. I know there’s cheaper alternatives available through colleges but I lived at home for college so that wasn’t really available to me. It shouldn’t be so expensive.”
CALLS TO EXPAND THE FREE SCHEME
Niamh also went to UCC, a campus that has long welcomed such initiatives.
Alannah O’Connor, the Student’s Union’s Welfare Officer, believes the free contraception scheme is a positive step forward for public health, but hopes that the initiative will be rolled out to further age groups soon.
“There should not be an age limit on accessing free contraception,” Alannah says.
“We have students of all ages in UCC; people who fall outside of this age bracket are excluded and expected to pay the estimated €65 to €100 every six months or else rely on less effective methods.
“This new legislation is incredibly beneficial to young people and will have a positive impact on their sexual health, we just hope to see it expanded to include people of all ages in the future.”
Caoimhe Walsh, a former UCC student and the USI’s current Vice President for the Southern Region, would also like to see the scheme extended sooner rather than later.
“In my opinion it does not go far enough. In this current climate we are seeing inflation rising and that is causing many people’s budgets to be stretched and contraception is an essential part of healthcare that should be available free of charge,” the 22-year-old says.
She would also like to see more information becoming available for those who avail of the scheme.
“It is also very important to note that these contraceptive methods do not protect people from STIs.
"It is important that any young person who does avail of free contraception under this new government plan is educated on this through schools.”
EASING THE BURDEN
Kelda McManus, MTU Cork’s Vice President for Welfare, has also heard concerns around making sure young people are educated on sexually transmitted infections.
“While I have heard mostly praise about the implementation of this service, I’ve also heard some concerns raised around the fact that there is nothing in place within this scheme to protect women against STIs. It’s an amazing scheme but we still need to promote education around STIs to reduce both risk and stigma,” she says.
“And I would hope to see such a service brought in for women of all ages in the coming years. Women don’t just stop having sex after the age of 25 so free contraception is not something that should be revoked after a certain age.
“The concern of that extra cost should not have to be accepted by women once they reach 25.”
However, as a 22-year-old, Kelda is hugely supportive of the new scheme.
“This service will be welcomed by women across the country. I think it’s going to be really beneficial and it’s something that women are rejoicing about,” she says.
“Contraception can be expensive and for a lot of people it is not always accessible as a result. With this service, women between the ages of 17 to 25 no longer have to worry about that burden.
“I think it also highlights how far we have come as a society. Through the years we’ve gone from contraceptive being completely illegal, to offering it to women for free. It’s been a long time coming and I feel it is a massive step in the right direction for Ireland.”
A GROUNDBREAKING STEP
The National Women’s Council (NWC) has welcomed the commencement of the universal free contraception scheme for women aged 17 to 25.
Alana Ryan, NWC’s Women’s Health Coordinator, said: “This is a ground-breaking step. Universal free contraception is a public health intervention with transformative potential and key to gender equality.
“Much of the time it falls to women to look after contraception, but the benefits of free contraception will be felt across society as women take control of their reproductive lives and choices.
“However, some women are sexually active before the age of 17, and long after the age of 25.
“So it’s crucial that Government follows this excellent first step up with a widening of the age bracket in the budget at the end of the month.”
The NWC sees access to contraception as inextricably linked to reproductive justice, alongside good relationship and sex education, and access to abortion.
Ms Ryan continued: “Access to contraception is crucial for preventing crisis pregnancy. As the Abortion Review progresses, it’s crucial that Government takes a holistic view of reproductive health. We need to ensure all women have access to the most reliable and effective forms of contraception to reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancy.
“It’s imperative that Government now keeps up the momentum and includes the next age cohort in the budget.”