Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health

Quarterly Update on Health Issues: Discussion
Quarterly Update on Health Issues: Discussion

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy O'Connell for raising these important matters. I will take them sequentially.

Like the Deputy, I am extremely disturbed that there is an attempt by some, despite a referendum and the legislation, still to think it is in some way acceptable to treat termination of pregnancy services differently from other legally authorised services in the Irish health service. We will not stand for it and I thank the director general of the HSE for the swift action she has taken after I engaged with the HSE.

There are two separate, but interlinked, matters that at the same fundamental level have that disgusting attitude to women's healthcare. The first is the idea that there would be fake My Options websites. We set up a 24-7 helpline and an informative website that gives a woman information, in a non-directional way, on all of her options, including abortion. The director general outlined in her opening statement the success of that website and telephone line, in terms of women now being able to have a conversation with a health-qualified professional, rather than having a conversation with Google or an airline. That has worked fairly well.

The idea that people would endeavour to fake being that website is fairly despicable. First, I echo the advice of the HSE that any information from the HSE displays its logo and myoptions.ieis the best way to access the site, rather than hoping Google searches will come across it. We cannot promote the myoptions.ieweb address enough in terms of women knowing that is where one goes for reputable information.

The HSE, at my request, has now looked into that matter and has initiated legal proceedings in the form of cease and desist. Those legal proceedings relating to the owner of the so-called "fake" website were initiated on Saturday, 2 February. The director general may wish to add to that. I thank her and the HSE for showing leadership and swift action on this.

The second issue is the issue of potential data breaches.

We have seen two examples. We saw one where an allegation emerged on social media that at a certain time a termination was taking place in a certain hospital, and we saw another - we can talk about it because it is in the public domain - where a woman who accessed a termination through the National Maternity Hospital found herself being contacted in the most despicable way by people opposed to the provision of this service pretending to be others. Hospital group CEOs are investigating that to establish in the first instance if the data breach happened. I assure members, as I know the HSE will, that we will not tolerate such data breaches. Whether a person is getting a hip replacement, accessing termination, having a cataract operation or to talking to his or her doctor, that person is entitled to privacy in relation to his or her medical information. That is not a privacy that is partial or complete, dependent on a person's view as to the service.

On the Rotunda Hospital, the law is the law, and the law is clear. Twelve weeks is the outer limit, the cut-off point legally, for accessing termination without specific indication in our country. Beyond that, as Deputy O'Connell knows better than most, the grounds relate to one's health, life and fatal foetal abnormalities. However, 12 weeks is the cut-off, not 11 weeks. The Chief Medical Officer has helpfully written to the Rotunda Hospital clarifying that. The law is the law. The operation of the law is a matter for clinicians and not for me, and that is right, but through the Chief Medical Officer we have written to the Rotunda to provide clarity on the matter.

The final issue I wish to mention is one that regularly comes up at the committee. It is about making sure that we address not just the parts of the all-party committee report that relate to abortion but also the ancillary recommendations. The committee has been pushing for access to free contraception for women, which is a recommendation of the all-party committee. I want to let the committee know that I will be setting up a working group in my Department, including all the various divisions, the Chief Medical Officer, primary care and eligibility, and some external experts in women's health. We will have that set up in the next few weeks to look at how we move towards expanding eligibility to free contraception for women. It is easy enough to do for men. We just increase the number of condoms, which we are doing this year. To increase eligibility to free access for women is likely to require legislative change and different types of contraception, but we will have the working group established with external expertise in women’s health in the next few weeks.