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Freedoms "subject to exceptions" says Donnelly as abortion zones bill slammed in Seanad

The government’s Safe Access Zones Bill, which would make it a criminal offence to pray or demonstrate outside GP centres, health facilities and hospitals providing abortion nationwide, has been met with scrutiny in the Seanad.

It came as Health Minister Stephen Donnelly told the House that with regards to the Bill, certain “freedoms are subject to exceptions,” as he acknowledged that the Bill would “create exemptions” to certain rights.

The Bill, which passed by a sweeping majority in the Dáil last month by 117 votes to 10, was introduced to the Seanad on Thursday by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, where it was debated by Senators at second stage.

Concerns were heard that the legislation was underpinned by a “desire to crush dissent,” with Senator Rónán Mullen stating that the government has now “abandoned any desire to even talk about reducing the number of abortions.”

Senator Sharon Keogan was also critical of the legislation – telling the Health Minister that the Bill would not protect women, but rather, would deny them the opportunity to avail of assistance to “willingly receive help and counsel when it is most needed.” 

The Independent Senator also expressed concern that the Bill sought to “ruthlessly punish” those whose conviction or faith prompted them to stand up “for the most vulnerable in our society” – sharing her view that the impact of the Bill on religious freedom was relevant.

Introducing the Bill on Thursday, Minister Donnelly said that the main purpose of the Bill was to address and mitigate, “insofar as possible, the potential for a person's access to a termination of pregnancy to be impacted or influenced at the point of access.”

“It will also provide additional assurance to healthcare providers should their services be the target of specified conduct that could interfere with their service provision,” he said.

The Health Minister acknowledged that the Bill was dealing with “a complex area of law seeking to balance competing constitutional rights..” He further insisted that: “This Bill is not about criminalising lawful protest. It is not about shutting points of view.”

However, Senator Rónán Mullen accused Mr Donnelly of “weasel words” which he said were designed to “reassure people that there is something reasonable about all of this.”

“How can you criminalise that which is lawful?” he asked Mr Donnelly, as he told the Seanad that it was his view that the Bill was about the government “caving” into the demands of “special interest groups":

He said that Senators had been presented with “some kind of sanitisation” of the legislation as being “some kind of respectful balance, having regard to people's right to access abortion which is now legal, tragically, and respect for people's right of freedom of assembly as guaranteed under the Constitution.”

“I am reminded of the British Government's approach in asserting that Rwanda is safe because it says so, and that it will legislate to say so,” he added. 

“These kind of guarantees that this is legal are summed up in the language used by the Minister today that it is not about criminalising lawful protest. Indeed, it is not, because the Minister proposes to make certain protests unlawful. How can you criminalise that which is lawful?”

He said that the reality in Ireland was that we do not have abortion clinics per se, but that abortion is available and happens in GP surgeries and hospitals. Those who access those places, he said, “enjoy complete anonymity.”

He went on to state that those who witnessed against abortion were “very few,” stating:

“The record of those who would witness, for whatever reason, to the injustice of abortion outside facilities where it takes place is that they are actually very few and mostly very respectful, which is what we would all want.”

Continuing, he told the Seanad: “What this Bill is actually about is finishing the work of the legislation for abortion five years ago in 2018. It is to crush dissent and make sure that the voice says that the unborn child is a human being that ought to be respected, cherished and welcomed into the world, the same as a child in Gaza or any other vulnerable child in any situation, is not to be heard. 

“What we have had is the disgraceful situation of Government officials and representatives caving in to special interest groups that want to silence dissent. 

He went on to reference comments from the Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, who said back in September 2019 that existing laws were sufficient to deal with protests outside places where abortions were provided.

“I cannot believe that what is provided for in this Bill is constitutional, when one considers that the deputy Garda commissioner appeared only a year ago before the health committee and called for signage to be erected outside facilities where abortions were being committed, on the mistaken assumption that hospitals were the main areas where services are provided at this juncture,” Mr Mullen said.

“Indeed, we heard the Garda Commissioner in the past saying that such legislation was not needed. The claims that people attending hospitals were being impeded by a lobby group were effectively undermined by the hospitals themselves. For example, Cork University Hospital released a statement to the effect that it had not received any complaints from patients regarding the protests.”

He likened the situation to “an example of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, where something really wrong and unjust is being done by some very respectable people, with great sanitised language and with pretensions of respect for democracy, freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas.”

“It is nothing of the sort.,” he told colleagues. “It is a desire to crush dissent, even from among the small number of people who might want to witness outside a medical facility that people could be attending for any purpose, or where there is no possibility of a person being personally intimidated or accosted, but where there might be the possibility of somebody seeing a smile, getting an offer of help or initiating a conversation that might lead them to choose not to have an abortion, with a life saved as a result. 


'The unborn child is a nothing in the eyes of these people'

“That is not to be tolerated because in the new Ireland, it is not a good news story if somebody decides not to have an abortion. The Government has abandoned any desire to even talk about reducing the number of abortions.”

Mr Mullen went on to reference “safe, legal and rare” terminology being used in America – but said such language was “not allowed” in Ireland.

“I remember when Bill and Hillary Clinton were advancing abortion in America. At that time, they said they wanted it to be safe, legal and rare. In today's Ireland, you are not allowed to use that language. You are not allowed to say it should be rare.”

He continued: “Why should it be rare? It is a person's choice. The unborn child is a nothing in the eyes of these people. That is a tragedy for our country.”

The Senator further said that any legislator who “supports that sutation, and any legislation that supports the ruthless crushing of even respectful witnessing to the dignity and the humanity of the unborn,” is doing their country a “major disservice.”

“If the Minister wonders why politics and politicians are brought into such disrepute, it is because legislation like this says to a significant proportion of people in our country that politicians really do not care about what is right and wrong.
"They just go with whatever the special interest groups that are most influential at a given time want, and they give it to them on a plate. It is shameful legislation and it will be opposed on Committee Stage.”

Senator Sharon Keogan also highlighted concerns around the Bill, telling the Seanad that she had “serious concerns.”

She said that she believed its inevitable outcome would be “to deny women the option of availing of lifesaving supports when they need them most.”

“This criminalisation is far too sweeping,” she continued, as she referred to cases of similar legislation being used against people in the UK.
“Particularly when considering the sheer number of safe access zones that this law would create, covering every GP clinic, hospital and family planning centre, irrespective of whether they provide abortions. In England and other jurisdictions where similar laws exist, we have seen cases of people who have been arrested for silently praying in the vicinity of abortion clinics.” 

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, from Birmingham, made headlines last year when she was asked by a West Midlands Police officer, “Are you praying for the lives of unborn children?” within a zone where similar censorship zones legislation is in force. 

She had been arrested last December for silently praying within the vicinity of a closed abortion facility in Birmingham, after she told an officer that she “might be” “praying “silently” in her head. The pro-life activist, who was arrested multiple times, later told Gript that: “Police told me my prayer was an offence — I was arrested for my silent thoughts.”

Senator Keogan went on to ask the Seanad, “What guarantee is there that people would not be arrested here for praying quietly?”

“If a small group or an individual were to stand outside Beaumont Hospital and pray a rosary intended for the sick or the healthcare workers, they would be well within their rights, but if they offered intentions for the unborn child, they would suddenly fall foul of this law and be treated as having committed a crime,” she said.

“While the impact of the Bill on religious freedom is relevant, I am also concerned that it would forbid the possibility of any positive efforts by private citizens and good Samaritans to offer women in unplanned pregnancies meaningful supports at a time they need it most.”

“If we want to be a compassionate society that respects women, we need to ensure that no woman ever feels she has no choice but to have an abortion. That is too often the case at present,” she added.

Senator Keogan further claimed that State-run MyOptions, the HSE’s abortion referral service and hotline, “acts as little more than an abortion referral service.”

She also told the House that it was “well established,” both on the record of the House and outside it, that there was “no evidence” that the legislation in question was needed.

“Senior gardaí have repeatedly stated that existing public order legislation is sufficient to defend people from harassment and intimidation and none of the major hospitals in this country have reported anything approaching the scenarios pro-abortion campaigners claim are a daily occurrence.”

Referencing those who voted no in 2018’s abortion referendum, she said:

“While such campaigners may smugly remind pro-life persons that the referendum is over, it remains a fact that one third of this country never wanted abortion introduced in this country and their voices are valid and must be counted and allowed to be heard.”

The Senator claimed that the Bill sought to ban “not harassment but prayer,” as she referred to Ireland’s tradition of silent and peaceful prayer vigils, which she said often take place in the vicinity of hospitals “as a way to pray for those suffering inside. “

“It is yet another Government Bill that seeks to punish opposition to the prevailing narrative, to copperfasten the supremacy of the majority over the minority opinion," she said. "It is a terrible proposal and I will not support this Bill.”

A number of Senators took aim at Senator Mullen and Senator Keogan for their comments, while Health Minister Stephen Donnelly concluded the debate by stating that the Bill would create “exemptions” to certain rights.



'These freedoms are subject to execptions'

“Bunreacht na hÉireann provides that the State guarantees liberty for the exercise, subject to public order and morality, of the right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions, as well as the right of citizens to assemble peaceably,” he told the House.

“Similar rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, to freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion are protected in the European Convention on Human Rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a large copy of which hangs in my office.”

“These freedoms are subject to exceptions,” he said, adding, “But, while that is so, the United Nations has specified that states should establish a positive presumption in favour of peaceful assembly."

He said that this meant there was “a very delicate balance to be struck” in devising the legislation.

“We are all elected representatives and, regardless of our political views or our views on any given policy, I know that every Member of this House and of Dáil Éireann believes passionately and forcefully in the right to protest, the right to assembly and all of the associated rights I have just listed. I say that as someone who has had protests outside his own house," he continued.

“We welcome and encourage protest and I am sure we have all been involved in protests outside Leinster House and in many other areas. We absolutely support and defend those rights.
"Therefore, when we bring in legislation that creates exemptions to those rights, such as this Bill, we do so in a very careful way. I believe this Bill has got the balance right.”

Maria Maynes 

This article first appeared in Gript

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