Image credit: Oireachtas TV
The Safe Access Zones Bill, which would enforce exclusion zones banning peaceful gatherings within 100 metres of facilities offering abortions, “will not achieve its intended outcome,” and is “inherently discriminatory, ”the Dáil has heard.
Concerns, described as “grave” were raised by a number of TDs as the Bill was debated at its second stage in the Dáil on Tuesday.
The House heard from Independent TD Peter Fitzpatrick that the unintended consequences of the legislation are “significant and deeply concerning” – with Fitzpatrick urging colleagues to join him in voting against the Bill.
“I fear we could see a situation with this Bill where the far-reaching consequences of it are not thrashed out here in a serious way and we are left with an unwieldy law which has the effect of crippling certain citizens’ fundamental rights,” he said.
Deputy Fitzpatrick insisted that the Bill “will not achieve its intended outcome.”
“In fact,” he said, “It will criminalise the expression of a single ethical world view across sprawling zones of this country.
“While there are no reasons to oppose exclusion zones on the grounds that they violate fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of expression or freedom of religion, supporters of exclusion zones argue that there must be a balance of rights. This is the debate that is at play abroad but it does not fully apply in Ireland.
“It must be stressed that we do not have the same abortion clinic systems that exist in countries like England and Germany.
“The Irish abortion system does not operate out of specific abortion clinics but rather within GP clinics, hospitals, and family planning centres, and is paid for by the taxpayer. Just 0.05% of all GP visits relate to terminations of pregnancy,” he said.
He pointed out that a pro-life campaigner outside a hospital or GP clinic “has no way of knowing who is going in to have an abortion and who is not.”
“This means that we have not seen the type of activity in Ireland which accentuated the decision to introduce exclusion zones,” he said, as he referenced sidewalk counselling in countries including England and Germany.
“The Irish situation is simply different. Importing the same model wholesale into Ireland strikes me as unworkable and it pushes against the upholding of civil liberties,” he said.
The TD went on to say that the idea that Ireland “urgently” needed legislation to stop people exercising constitutional rights fell flat – referring to a Limerick hospital’s confirmation that it had received no complaints regarding pro-life vigils.
“In Ireland, the most common sort of pro-life activity has often been older people in small groups praying silently outside hospitals. Supporters of exclusion zones have pinpointed these small groups as creating terror.
“Yet, they are not harassing anyone. I know of a group that chooses to say the Rosary outside University Hospital Limerick. Its members offer intentions for the sick, for healthcare workers and for the unborn child.
“I know of a group of people outside Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda who took part in a quiet protest. They did not hand out leaflets or harass anyone. In fact, the UL Hospitals Group had to come out in December 2021 and state that it had not received a single complaint from any woman, partner or staff member in respect of to anti-abortion protests.
“It leads me to believe that this legislation is nothing more than following a generic trend abroad where circumstances are entirely different. Further to that, because this legislation singles out one particular worldview it is inherently discriminatory and paints pro-life people in a negative light. This is undemocratic.”
Deputy Seán Canney also expressed his “grave concerns and reservations” about aspects of the Bill – adding that advocates of the Bill “seem to have no serious evidence basis” for it.
“The effect of this legislation will go far beyond what the Government has sketched out with regard to its intended impact. Proponents of the Bill say that its purpose is to stop harassment, which we can all agree is wrong. However, the type of activities which supporters of exclusion zones claim are happening seem to have no serious evidence basis,” the Galway East Independent said.
An investigation by Gript’s Gary Kavanagh in January 2022 found that there were no record of complaints for pro-life vigils at any of Ireland’s maternity hospitals, with 18 out of 19 relevant hospitals or units responding to our request for comment.
“Sensational claims were made in the Seanad in February 2022 that rural GPs who have their offices in their homes have been subjected to unacceptable protests at their homes. There is simply not a shred of evidence to suggest that this has happened,” the TD said.
“In December 2021, UL Hospitals Group, clarified that it had no record of anti-abortion protests and had received no complaints from patients or staff. Limerick was often held up as the epicentre of pro-life protests. The type of activity going on in Limerick involves a small group of mostly women praying near the hospital. It is hardly the crime of the century, and such activity should not be treated as a crime.”
Deputy Canney said that the Bill required a “rethink,” adding that: “The impact of this legislation would be that the expression of any viewpoint or activity which could be inferred as influencing someone’s decision to have an abortion would be criminalised in a vast amount of public areas..”
He said this “would even include criminalising certain private conversations. It would include prohibiting one from handing out a leaflet outside Trinity College which might contain pro-life information. It could even shut down debates in the college on abortion from either perspective.”
Aontú leader, Deputy Peadar Tóibín, meanwhile blasted the Bill as “another example of that tendency towards authoritarianism in this Government.”
The Meath West TD argued that the legislation restricts the human and civil right to protest, describing it as “an evidence-free Bill.”
“It is ideological and yet another step on the well-travelled road of this Government deleting human and civil rights,” he said.
He referred to the case of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce in Birmingham, England. The pro-life advocate’s case made headlines earlier this year when she was arrested for standing silently in prayer outside a closed abortion facility.
“A police officer went up to that woman and asked her what she was thinking. In answer to that, she said she was involved in silent prayer. In that scenario, she was arrested for that. Are we really coming to that situation where people standing silently are to be arrested for the thoughts going through their minds outside an abortion clinic?” Mr Tóibín asked.
“We are not talking about banning freedoms in small area. Dublin has dozens if not hundreds of these types of locations and 100 m zones would literally seal off significant sections of city from conversations – maybe one sister banned from having a conversation with another sister because of this law.”
TDs from the Rural Independent Group, Carol Nolan, Mattie McGrath, Michael Collins, Danny Healy-Rae and Mattie Healy-Rae, all expressed stark opposition to the exclusion zones Bill.
Deputy Carol Nolan said the Bill “criminalises help” – as she stated that those campaigning for the Bill “know that no harassment is taking place” outside GP surgeries or hospitals.
“They know that if any harassment were to happen, gardaí already have sufficient powers to deal with such a situation. There is a skyrocketing abortion rate in Ireland and that is a fact. Yet the Government spends its time caving in to the demands of the most extreme elements of the abortion-supporting lobby,” the Laois Offally Independent said.
She slammed Minister Stephen Donnelly for failing to meet with women who have experienced receiving support outside abortion facilities in places such as the UK.
“It is unconscionable how the Minister has misled the public by claiming to engage in the widest possible consultation before making decisions,” Nolan said.
Mattie McGrath TD said that while the Bill will have a “dramatic impact on civil liberties,” it has not been met with the scrutiny it deserves.
“The idea that this law is being introduced to stop people from engaging in actions such as blocking doorways or harassing people is totally untrue. There is ample legislation to stop people from doing that. The Commissioner and all the other gardaí have told the Minister that there is no need for this legislation,” Deputy McGrath said.
Deputy Michael Healy-Rae described Ireland’s abortion statistics as “extremely concerning” and “shameful.”
“I would like in my short contribution to think of no one else except the unborn people. I am not just calling them babies; they were people. They would have been people if they had been born and not aborted.,” he said.
“There were 8,156 abortion procedures in 2022. Only 22 of those were performed due to the risk to life or health. Four were emergency situations, and 88 were carried out due to fatal foetal abnormalities. The majority of terminations, 8,042, were conducted in early pregnancy under the provisions of section 12 of the Act.”
Danny Healy-Rae also pointed to Ireland’s rising abortion rate, something he said he was “frightened” by. Questioning how the legislation would work in practice, he asked: “How will these zones be marked for people who do not know where those GPs are? Someone could be within such an exclusion zone unwittingly. Are we going to mark these places or what? This is shocking and not needed.”
Michael Collins TD, meanwhile, described the Bill as “reckless and unworkable”. He said, if voted through, it would “trample on civil liberties and do immense damage to trust in government and the institutions of the State.”
“The motivation behind the Bill has been clear from the get-go. It has nothing to do with public safety. It is about silencing pro-life opposition to the Government’s abortion law and nothing else. That is abundantly clear when you take a close look at what it proposes.”
This piece was first published on Gript.
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