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Rotunda Master “can’t remember" last time abortion protest took place outside hospital

The Master of Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital has said he “can’t remember” the last time an abortion protest took place outside the hospital. Giving an interview to The Irish Times, Prof. Seán Daly made the remarks when asked about the abortion zones legislation –  set to make it illegal to protest within 100 metres of facilities providing abortion. 

Professor Daly, a professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Trinity College Dublin, is the first person to serve as master of two of Dublin’s maternity hospitals, having previously served as the master of the Coombe hospital. 

"Legislation to make it illegal to protest within 100 metres of facilities providing abortion services passed through the Dáil last month; Daly says he can’t remember when the last protest of this type took place outside the Rotunda," the paper reports.

His comments come just under two months after the Safe Access Zones Bill was passed in the Dáil by an overwhelming majority of 117 votes to 10. 

The legislation, which is now before the Senate, will make prayer gatherings, demonstrations and protests outside facilities providing abortion illegal within a 100-metre zone. Under the Bill, offences will be punishable by a fine or time in prison, with the law outlining a fine of up to €500 or a month imprisonment, or both, for a first offence. A second offence will result in a fine of up to €1,000, or up to three months in prison – or both.

His comments appear to be at odds with claims made by Irish politicians regarding the frequency of such protests. The Dáil has repeatedly heard claims that intimidation and harassment were caused by pro-life protestors holding vigils or gatherings outside Irish hospitals, while similar claims have been made by media personalities and NGOs in the last number of years. Pro-life protests have been described as “constant” in the Dail by Deputy Roisin Shorthall, who said in July: “If anybody thinks these are unusual events, they are certainly not. They can be constant; daily in some cases.”

“There is no doubt that the current frequency of protests outside healthcare facilities is extremely disturbing and upsetting for people availing of services,” Deputy Shorthall said in October 2022.

The appointment of Prof Daly as master of the Rotunda Hospital would reinforce the Dublin hospital's position as "the maternity hospital of choice," staff were told following his selection in March 2022. The Irish Times reported at the time.

Commenting on Prof Daly's recent remarks, Sandra Parda of The Life Institute said: "The Master of the Rotunda's own comments show that the claims that this legislation is necessary is not based on reality.

"In fact, we know the truth is that the pro-life vigils and witnesses that take place, in the deeply concerning context of our rising abortion rate, are peaceful. Such demonstrations often go unnoticed, and their only purpose is to show support and offer alternatives for mothers and babies to empower them to choose life in difficult circumstances."

Pro-life groups have said that the zones are unnecessary, discriminatory, and amount to punching down on peaceful prayer. 

Sinn Fein’s David Cullinane has also claimed that  protests took place on a regular basis outside maternity hospitals, telling the Dail in October 2022:

“The HSE submission makes the reasons [behind the legislation] very clear because it refers to weekly, and sometimes monthly, anti-abortion protests outside maternity hospitals, mainly in Dublin, and also outside GP surgeries.”

However, opponents have defended the right to protest and hold peaceful gatherings, while a 2022 investigation by Gript’s Gary Kavanagh found that Irish maternity hospitals had no record of complaints for pro-life vigils.

As reported by Gary Kavanagh In January 2020, Gript contacted every hospital that provides maternity services in the country, asking if a) any staff or patients had ever made a formal complaint to the hospital about pro-life protesters, and b) if there had ever been an incident at the hospital in which “pro-life protesters have impeded the ability of patients to access the hospital, or attempted to intimidate or harass patients?”

Gript received responses from 16 of the 19 relevant hospitals - none had ever received a formal complaint from any member of their staff or from patients regarding the protests, and none detailed any incident in which protesters had attempted to intimidate or harass patients. The Rotunda was among hospitals who responded to this publication at the time, to state that they had never received a formal complaint regarding abortion protests.

Critiquing the exclusion zones Bill during a Seanad debate in July, Senator Sharon Keogan pointed out that the 100m zones, to be imposed around “each and every GP practice, hospital, clinic and family planning clinic in Dublin city centre” covers an “enormous” amount of territory, within which “no person could do anything that might influence a woman's decision to have an abortion.”

She said: “This includes areas like O'Connell Street, where 100 m zones around the Rotunda Hospital and the Irish Family Planning Association, IFPA, centre on Cathal Brugha Street portion off one end of the street, while several medical centres near O'Connell Street portion of the other end.

"Therefore, a person who is walking down O'Connell Street with a sign that says “Choose life, not abortion” would be liable for six months' imprisonment and a fine of €2,500, but if the same person walked down O'Connell Street with a sign reading “Choose life - don't eat meat”, they will be perfectly within their rights to do so.”

Various pro-life TDs and senators have referred to comments made by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, who said in September 2019 that existing laws were adequate to deal with abortion protests.

In a letter to then Minister for Health Simon Harris, the Commissioner insisted that existing public order legislation was sufficient to deal with the kind of protests witnessed at hospitals and health centres.

In the letter,  Mr Harris the introduction of such safe-access legislation would be “redundant” due to the existence of current laws and because “no incidence of criminality has been reported or observed.”

He further said that there was “no evidence to suggest that there is threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour directed towards persons utilising such services.”

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said in November that he hoped that the Bill would be finalised “as promptly as possible.” Mr Donnelly said he was “delighted” that the Dáil had voted in favour of the legislation, describing abortion zones legislation as a “government priority.”

The number of abortions performed in Ireland soared by over 25% in 2022, according to official statistics, with more than 8,500 abortions taking place – the highest annual number since abortion was legalised.

Maria Maynes


This article was first on gript and is published here with permission


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