Cate McCurry, PA
A Bill that would introduce safe access zones outside maternity hospitals and clinics providing abortion services has been launched by a campaign group.
Drafted by the Together for Safety group, the private members Bill has been submitted to the Seanad.
It would create a 100-metre safe access zone around areas where people are trying to access abortion or contraceptive services.
It comes as the Department of Health started to draft its own legislation, which is aimed at protecting women and staff from harassment and intimidation outside healthcare facilities.
Our bill attempts to balance the right to protest with the right to healthcare and privacy. We have written to all senators and civil society groups to ensure that our bill is fair, robust, and fit for purpose - @YvieNi
— Together for Safety (@together_safety) October 1, 2021
The safe access zones were to be introduced alongside abortion services in 2019, but the Government failed to introduce the legislation.
Campaigners say their own Bill balances the rights of people who are availing of the health services and the right to protest.
The safe zone would provide a bubble of 100 metres around premises that provide abortion services, meaning there are number of things people will not be entitled to do in law.
People would be prevented from expressing or demonstrating their support or opposition to an individual’s decision to access abortion or contraceptive care.
This includes stopping a person and trying to advise them or persuade them not to access abortion services, praying, holding signs, or recording individuals going in and out of a premises.
It also includes any activity that a reasonable person would think is expressing or demonstrating opposition or support to abortion.
Cliodhna Ní Cheileachair, a barrister in England and Wales who helped draft the Bill, said: “There is an appropriate place for protest to take place and it isn’t outside a GP’s clinic.
“The second thing it does is it extends the law of harassment to include harassment by anyone of an individual who is providing abortion or contraceptive care.
“The Bill explains that if you’re a victim of harassment under this Act or if your rights are breached because someone protested outside a clinic that you were attending to lawfully access care, you have a civil right in damages against that person.”
The Bill does not prevent people from taking part in industrial action outside clinics nor does it prevent gardaí from interacting with anyone outside.
Dr Jennifer Kavanagh, a law lecturer who specialises in constitutional law, said: “Someone’s right to privacy has to be balanced against someone’s right to protest, and that’s the basic principles of the Constitution.”
Dr Kavanagh said that safe zones already exist in law in the Electoral Act, which bans posters or canvassers within 50 metres of a polling station during the hours of voting.
“It really is more important that people in those situations have protection for their privacy and that they are not feeling like they’re being harangued from different sides,” Dr Kavanagh added.
“I would say it’s more important than when somebody is going in to cast a ballot because you’re not going to be in a highly emotive state when voting.
“This Bill is really doing the best balancing act it can of trying to protect everything, while also giving people who need these services the space.”
Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly said there is cross-party support for the Bill.
She also said that the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly confirmed the Government’s Bill on safe access zones is now being drafted.
“This Bill, obviously, will go to pre-legislative scrutiny, and we’ve had a note from the President of Ireland to say that really we need to be sending as much as possible to (pre-legislative) scrutiny in order to have it properly looked at,” Ms O’Reilly added.
Labour Senator Rebecca Moynihan said: “I think it’s important to put the safe access in the context of the tactics that the pro-life movement have engaged in, not just in Ireland but worldwide over the last number of years.
“On one level, you think and you wonder: is it that people are standing outside with a genuine belief that they’re doing some good? But the reality is they use the tactics as a chill effect.
“They use it as a chill effect from GP services providing abortion access and we just have 10 per cent of GPs that are providing abortion access in this country.
“This is an effective tactic in terms of that of, particularly women in the western seaboard not being able to access local services, and other clinics not providing abortion services for the fear that you might have activists outside of it.”