Healthcare workers should not be legally prosecuted if they provide “sexual health services” such as STI treatment to children under 16, if they deem it to be in that child's best interests, according to a new policy statement on sexual health published by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.
The document, Better Sexual Health for Ireland, says that providing such services “can sometimes be challenging in the context of the current legal framework in Ireland”.
This is because the legal age of consent here is 17. There are proposals from the Law Reform Commission to lower this to 16.
Britain, which has provided contraception to teenagers under 16s for several decades without parental consent has a pregnancy rate among this age group that is six times higher than the Irish rate.
The report says: “Access to services should not be restricted by age, gender, sexual orientation, physical or intellectual ability, or geographical location. In particular within the younger population there is a need to provide appropriate, accessible services to those in need.
“It must be acknowledged that the provision of STI services to young people (especially those under 16 years of age) can sometimes be challenging in the context of the current legal framework in Ireland. These challenges have a negative impact on equity of access to services for young people and a negative impact on education and research into their sexual health needs.”
The document highlights the role of parents, who it says “play an essential role in the delivery of sexual health education”.
It says: “The importance of parents communicating with children at an early age about relationships and sex, delivering age-appropriate and accurate information to create an environment where children will feel comfortable in discussing the subject as they get older is well documented.
“Furthermore, it is well known from existing research that parental monitoring, such as knowing what time adolescents come and go and where they are has a protective effect in terms of sexual health. Low parental monitoring has been found to be associated with early sexual activity, more sexual partners and inconsistent contraceptive use.”
The report also urges the Government to develop a “national sexual health strategy” which would include sex education programmes targeting those at-risk “including people who have sex before the age of 17, young adults, women aged between 35 and 55, men who have sex with men (MSMs), and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds”.
It added: “Sex education is a lifelong process, but it is most essential during childhood and adolescence. Appropriate sex education is associated with healthier sexual behaviours and sexual outcomes in later life.”