Legislation to ban anti-abortion protests outside facilities to come into force

Legislation to ban anti-abortion protests outside facilities to come into force

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has finalised a Bill to introduce safe access zones to protect women and staff from intimidation when entering healthcare facilities.

Anti-abortion protests will be banned outside maternity hospitals and clinics providing termination of pregnancy services under new laws due to come into force later this year.

Protesters will not be allowed to gather within 100 metres of specified healthcare facilities where terminations are carried out under the legislation, which will now be fast-tracked through the Dáil and Seanad.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has finalised the General Scheme of a Bill to introduce safe access zones to protect women and staff from intimidation when entering healthcare facilities that provide abortion care.

A Government source confirmed that party leaders were recently briefed on the measures and a memo was last night circulated to Cabinet ministers detailing General Scheme of Bill.

As part of the drafting of the Bill, senior counsel was brought in to review it from a constitutional and human rights perspective. The Office of the Attorney General was also consulted as was the Department of Justice.

Safe access zones

It had initially been promised that safe access zones would be introduced in parallel with the rollout of the abortion services in January 2019, however, legal and constitutional difficulties were raised.

Garda Commission Drew Harris also previously stated that existing public order legislation is adequate.

However, campaigners had called for the immediate introduction of safe access zones, claiming that current laws do not cover silent protests that have taken place outside GP practices and other healthcare facilities.

The Irish Examiner previously reported that in 2019, senior HSE officials also raised concerns with the gardaí that the lack of safe access zones was influencing some GPs' willingness to sign up to provide the service.

Under the new laws, engaging in conduct which is intended to, or could reasonably be expected to, exert moral pressure on such a person is included — and not just intimidating, harassing behaviour, or blocking access.

It is now expected that the legislation will be prioritised during the Autumn session and it is hoped it will be signed into law this year.

Research on protests

It comes as new research published by NUI Maynooth found that protests took place outside GP surgeries, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities in 10 counties in 2021 — Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Galway, Kildare, Limerick, Roscommon, Tipperary, Waterford and Wicklow.

The report, authored by Dr Camilla Fitzsimons, has found that the most common form of protest reported was silent street gatherings, using props such as white crosses, followed by reports of people displaying posters and placards — often with graphic images of foetuses.

"Since January 2019, there have been frequent media reports of these sorts of protests across the country. Domestic and international research has found these protests are intimidatory and upsetting for service uses and are even a form of gender-based harassment. They can deter doctors from becoming service providers," Dr Fitzsimons has written.

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