Offering free contraception to the under-17s could have led to legal challenges, according to the Junior Health Minister.
From next August, women aged 17 to 25-years-old will be able to access free contraception – with the pill and long-term implants available under the scheme.
The move was announced as part of a €31m “dedicated women’s health package” in Budget 2022 this afternoon.
While the plan has been largely welcomed, the age limits on the scheme have been questioned in the days since it was announced.
At a Department of Health budget briefing this afternoon, Junior Minister Mary Butler suggested offering free contraception to people under 17 could have led to legal challenges.
“I just want to point out that the age of consent is actually 17 and I think we were best placed to have the free contraception from the age of 17 to 25 because obviously, we could be faced with legal challenges,” she said.
“That is the rule of law here in this country, so I think the [Health] Minister was quite right with the age he started it off with.”
France will begin offering free contraception to all women under the age of 25 from next year while it is free to everyone in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Minister Butler couldn't say whether the Department had sought legal advice on the issue.
“No, I haven’t spoken to the Attorney General on this,” she said.
“I was just making the point that I do believe that, as the age of consent in Ireland is 17, we could end up with legalistic challenges if we were to ensure it was free at the point of access for people younger than 17.
“So, I completely endorse what the minister has done. I think it was the right decision.”
Minister Donnelly said the scheme is an “important first step.”
“This is just the start,” he said. “I intend rolling this out much more broadly.
“We have to start somewhere and there are a number of reports and studies that have considered the existing cost barriers to contraception and they have concluded that they disproportionately affect younger women.
“So, we are starting where the reports say the need is greatest. Where the impact will be the best, but I fully intend on rolling this out wider.”
Asked why the scheme would not be opening until next August, Minister Donnelly said a considerable amount of work has to be done just to get the implementation right.
“I brought it as early in the year as I can. Probably earlier than some would like. They would probably like a bit more time, but I brought it as early as possible.”
He said the measure will cost the taxpayer €28m per year to roll out – significantly more than the €21m France it is expected to cost in France.
A report from the Irish Family Planning Association handed to the Government ahead of the budget estimated the cost at €10m per year in 2022 rising to €10.8m per year by 2026 due to population changes.
Reporting from Kacey O'Riordan