Labour bill targets rogue crisis pregnancy agencies

Unregulated crisis pregnancy agencies will be made illegal under a new bill proposed in response to an undercover investigation by The Times.

Brendan Howlin, the Labour leader, is hoping to pass the “much-needed” legislation as soon as possible after a clinic run by a Catholic group was exposed claiming that abortions could cause breast cancer and turn women into child abusers.

The bill, introduced to the Dail yesterday, would amend the Health and Social Care Professionals Act to add crisis pregnancy counsellors to the list of health professions regulated by the state. The move would make them subject to checks and any complaints against them would be examined.

The Times undercover investigation

“While the debate around the repeal of the Eighth Amendment begins in communities across Ireland, women are currently being lied to in the most grotesque fashion,” Mr Howlin said. “This behaviour is an appalling abuse of a position of trust and power at a time of great vulnerability for women and it must be brought to an end.”

Mr Howlin also said he was open to amending the bill to enforce “buffer zones” around legitimate clinics so that women in crisis pregnancies cannot be approached by anti-abortion activists. Following the investigation several women came forward to say that they had been approached by anti-abortion groups outside genuine pregnancy advice centres.

Labour has appealed to Simon Harris, the health minister, to support the bill. Mr Harris had said that he was “sickened” by the exposed pregnancy advice centre.

Mr Howlin said he believed the bill would get the support of other parties. “We have had discussions with others and we are hopeful that this bill will speedily pass through the Dail,” he said. “I have spoken directly to the minister for health, and he is supportive of the principles of the bill. I hope that we can have this enacted in this session.”

The Times has contacted the Department of Health and Mr Harris several times over the last few weeks regarding the bill, but neither have confirmed if the government will support it.

Fianna Fail has already pledged to support the legislation. “We would support a bill that regulates counsellors so that the information they give to women is factual and based on proper medical advice. We cannot have a situation where people claiming to be counsellors give fictitious and malicious information at clinics when they are approached by women who are distressed or have a crisis pregnancy,” a party spokesman said.

In the 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, head of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, described the claims by the counsellor as “outrageous, inaccurate and dangerous”.

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.

The Women’s Centre, which is not regulated by the HSE, is now at the centre of a garda investigation. It is suspected of providing advice which was not truthful or objective. Gardai at Mountjoy station are preparing a file to send to the director of public prosecutions. The investigation was launched following a complaint by Clare Daly, the independent TD for Dublin North.

The Regulation of Information Act 1995 restricts what crisis agencies can tell women who are considering whether or not to continue a pregnancy. The spirit of the law is to prevent them from advocating or promoting termination or giving too much information about abortion services abroad. Section five of the legislation also requires that any advice given to women must be truthful and objective.

Ms Daly reported the undercover footage as she believed it showed that the agency was in breach of the act. She also called for the centre to be shut down.

Mr Harris had previously said that he believed the clinic had broken the law and should be investigated. “I would point out that the 1995 information act, which is already on the statute books in this country, does say that women must be provided with true and factual information,” he said.

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