Government U-turn on safe access zones at abortion clinics

Government U-turn on safe access zones at abortion clinics

Stephen Donnelly has reversed a policy priority dating back to 2018 to protect women and staff from intimidation at healthcare facilities offering abortion care. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews

The Government has scrapped promised laws to introduce safe access zones outside maternity hospitals and clinics providing abortion services.

Campaigners have hit out at Health Minister Stephen Donnelly for quietly shelving legislation to protect women and staff from intimidation when entering healthcare facilities, accusing him of "disregarding the electorate" and "disrespecting pregnant women".

The Department of Health has confirmed that it will rely on existing public order law to police any protests outside maternity hospitals or GP practices and has no current plans to introduce safe access zones.

U-turn from 2018 'priority' policy

This is a U-turn from 2018, when then health minister Simon Harris said establishing 100m safe zones around facilities providing abortion services was a priority for Government and promised to fast-track the measures to ensure women and staff were protected from intimidation.

The department has now claimed there have been a "limited number" of reports of protests since the introduction of abortion in 2019, which they say is an "extremely positive development".

However, just last month Limerick City and County councillors wrote to Mr Donnelly urging him to prioritise legislation for safe access zones amid ongoing anti-abortion protests outside University Maternity Hospital, Limerick (UMHL) and other healthcare settings.

'Disrespectful to pregnant people'

Campaigner Ailbhe Smyth said: "For the Government to sit back and say 'well, you know, we're just keeping an eye on things', when protests could occur at any time is really not good enough as a response, and it's disrespectful to pregnant people.

It shows a disregard for the general position, in view of the electorate who clearly voted for care and compassion. 

Calling on the Government to introduce safe access zones, she said: "It's important to put protections in place for what we know is a real risk to the physical and mental wellbeing of people seeking abortion."

She said it is "absurd" to give the number of protests as a reason to not progress the legislation.

"The vast majority of people had to curtail their movements and there have been noticeably fewer protests, right across the board [since Covid].

"This is a very flawed evidence base on which to make a decision, even a provisional decision on this legislation."

'It's important to put protections in place for what we know is a real risk to the physical and mental wellbeing of people seeking abortion', Ailbhe Smyth said. 	File picture
'It's important to put protections in place for what we know is a real risk to the physical and mental wellbeing of people seeking abortion', Ailbhe Smyth said. File picture

JoAnne Neary of the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) said the lack of legislation is preventing some GPs, especially in rural areas, from signing up to provide abortion services as they fear they will be picketed if they do so.

'Intimidation goes beyond people seeking abortion'

"It's not just people accessing the specific service who are impacted by this, you have elderly people going in for hospital appointments, they're intimidated by these people, the cleaning staff going in are intimidated by those people, the doctors, the nurses, the admin staff.

"If you had a miscarriage and you are bringing your child home in a small white coffin, do you really want to see these people standing outside with small white coffins?" she asked.

Responding to queries from the Irish Examiner about the legislation, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said: "There has been a limited number of reports of protests or other actions relating to termination of pregnancy. This is an extremely positive development. It suggests that these services have bedded in relatively smoothly to date and are becoming a normal part of the Irish healthcare system, as intended.

"Where problems do arise with protests outside healthcare services, there is existing public order legislation in place to protect people accessing services, staff and local residents."

Department 'has liased with gardaí'

The spokesperson said the department has liaised with the gardaí and a notice has been issued to all stations raising awareness about the issue.

"It directed that any protests be monitored, and breaches of existing law dealt with. The department has provided information on existing public order and other relevant legislation to the HSE for appropriate distribution."

It is understood that some constitutional issues had been raised when the measures were initially being drafted. This meant safe access zones were not included in the main legislation which has allowed for abortion services since 2019.

However, safe access zones have been successfully introduced in many other jurisdictions including in parts of the US, Canada, Australia and the UK.

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