The Well Woman Centre

The Well Woman Centre of Ireland has been around for almost 40 years, and during that time became an institution championing Irish women’s health and fighting for their reproductive rights. The first centre opened in 1978 with the aim of helping women access family planning information and services. During the 80’s they were at the forefront of the campaign to provide information to women in crisis pregnancy situations. In the 90’s they took their case to the European Court of Human Rights and won.

Currently the WWC are still carrying out great work from their 3 locations in Dublin. Ireland still suffers greatly from having some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the developed world, and the Well Woman Centre provides free non-judgemental, non-directive information to women in a crisis pregnancy situation, including information on abortion. They also provide free post-termination counselling and medical check-ups to women who have had an abortion abroad.  

Today the WWC published their annual report for 2014. It would seem that STI’s like Chlamydia and Herpes have seen a rise in positive test results since 2013. And despite the initial success of the launch of the Government’s free cervical screening programme for women aged 25+ in 2008, they’ve seen a steady decrease in demand for smear tests. In 2014 they found themselves at a 12-year low with 7198 tests provided. The number of tests for Chlamydia rose by 20% this year, and the amount of positive results rose by 32%.

Alison Begas, Chief Executive of the WWC, says that despite increased awareness about sexual health, prevalence rates for certain STIs are still rising at an alarming rate and more needs to be done to reduce the spread of these infections:

“These results highlight the need to expedite publication of the National Sexual Health Strategy. The Well Woman Centre takes a proactive approach in promoting the availability and importance of testing, however we are only one service provider, and access to standardized testing must be improved nationwide.  These diseases are becoming more prevalent, and we need action from the HSE now.”

Focusing on frank and open positive conversations about sex, sexulaity and health is one of the main reasons I started Sex Siopa, but that conversation needs to be something everyone in the country is comfortable having. To do that we need a more structured approach - and a National Sexual Health Strategy would certainly be welcome. We also need to focus on better education - the best way to instill healthy sexual and relationship practices is by teaching it in our schools - and this can be problematic given the historic influence of the Catholic Church on education in Ireland. A 2010 Dail Na Og report found that almost three-quarters of young people (74%) did not receive Relationships and Sexuality  classes during the previous school year.  The Irish Times recently published a sex survey where 80% of respondents said they felt that the sex education they received was inadequate.

Having a proper foundation of sexual education, and access to affordable reproductive and sexual health care services, is imperative for a healthy population. I personally have several friends whose lives were saved by routine cervical and breast exams. I know several others who have never gone for a screening, because they either didn’t realise that it was free, or they couldn’t be bothered. We need the structures and supports in place to support healthy decisions about our physical, mental and sexual health - and we need to talk to the people we care about to encourage them to take a more positive approach to managing their health.  

While being mindful of one’s own health is important, Ireland desperately needs all the encouragement we can get to build a culture of looking after our sexual health, and not feeling ashamed when something goes wrong and needs to be fixed, especially in the case of health checks like STI screenings which should be routine for every sexually active adult. The Well Woman Centre offers discounts for couples getting an STI screening - a nice idea. Hopefully most couples would be able to see this as a positive thing to do together. They also have discounts for students, which is great as over 90% of college students in Ireland have not had an STI test.

In addition to STI tests, Well Woman offer the following services:

  • Free smear tests
  • Free pregnancy counselling
  • Free services w/ medical card (Coolock location only)
  • HPV / Travel vaccines
  • Contraception / emergency contraception
  • Menopause consultations

The other thing that jumped out at me in this report was the 27% increase in the number of long acting reversible contraception (LARCs) fitted in 2014 when compared to 2013, with the number passing 1,000 for the first time. As someone who is a huge fan of my Mirena Coil, and who dreads the thought of having to remember to take a pill every day, I think that many people do not consider this option as they don’t know enough about it. Next time you are talking to a health care professional about your options, you should ask them - while it might not suit everyone, I think it should be considered as an option.

Given the history of the Well Woman Centre, and their key role in the struggle for women’s reproductive rights in Ireland, it would be strange to finish up this blog without stating that the struggle is far from over. It is way past time to repeal the 8th Amendment. Ironically, those who opposed the Well Woman Centre and other organisations who fought for access to contraception did so because they believed that teaching people about contraception and sex would lead to more abortions. In 2003, the Mother and Child Institute (who shared an office with Youth Defence at the time) stated that they  “strongly reject the view muted by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency that the answer to crisis pregnancy is widespread access to contraception and sex education . . . Educating young people about sex is like giving a child matches to play with - it is inevitable that they would want to experiment. Naturally this would lead to countless unplanned pregnancy (sic)”. I don’t think I’ll ever understand how those who oppose abortion can also oppose contraception, but there you go. Organisations like the Well Woman Centre played an important role in the struggle for reproductive rights in Ireland, and I hope they will continue to have an important role in future as well, both in the movement for reproductive rights, and in the ongoing conversations we need to have to make a positive approach to sex and sexual health the norm in Ireland.