Anyone breaching new legislation on safe access zones for abortion facilities could face up to €2,500 or six months in prison.
The Government has agreed the formal drafting of the general scheme of the Health (Termination of Pregnancy Services (Safe Access Zones) legislation, which will put the exclusion zones on a legal standing.
They will be established within 100m of all healthcare facilities that currently provide or can provide termination-of-pregnancy services. This will include the premises of hospitals as well as community care and secondary care centres, including general practitioners.
Conduct which "intentionally or reasonably would have the effect of influencing the decision of a person in relation to availing of, or providing, termination-of-pregnancy services, or interfering with a person’s access to or provision of termination of pregnancy services" will be prohibited in the safe access zones.
A Government statement said the legislation was designed to "protect the safety and wellbeing of women accessing termination-of-pregnancy services, as well as service providers, their staff, and others who need to access healthcare settings in the course of their duties and responsibilities".
It added that the bill aims to "respect the privacy and dignity of women accessing termination-of-pregnancy services, as well as the service providers, and their staff in the course of their duties and responsibilities" and "protect the freedom to access termination-of-pregnancy services without impediment, judgement, or unsolicited attempts to influence healthcare decisions or decisions to offer termination-of-pregnancy services, for all women accessing termination services, as well as service providers and others".
The legislation was brought to the last meeting of Cabinet before the summer recess by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, who said at the time that the legislation should be operational by the end of the year.
“It’s a very positive move," he said.
"I will be looking to engage with the Oireachtas health committee on pre-legislative scrutiny. We need to look at the time commitments the health committee can give this.
The legislation proposes fines of €500 or one month in prison for a first offence, €1,000 and three months for a second offence, and €2,500 or six months for a third offence for those found guilty of "prohibited conduct".
The bill's explanatory note says: "By their nature, these offences reflect behaviour that is repetitive in nature and may cause ongoing distress or other negative impact to the person experiencing the behaviour and therefore attract escalated treatment."
However, someone found guilty of harassment could be fined up to €4,000 and jailed for a month.
The bill defines harassment or intimidation as taking the form of, but not being limited to, "repeatedly communicating with a service provider by letter, social media, telephone, text message, email, or other electronic or non-electronic means, persistently following, watching, monitoring, pestering, or besetting the service provider".
Prohibited conduct under the act includes interfering, or attempting to interfere, by any means, with any service provider, any person accessing or attempting to access the services of a healthcare provider, or any person accompanying a person who is accessing or attempting to access the services of a healthcare provider.