Sinn Fein leads Bill to ban protests on abortion

Massive fines, prison and right to damages

Sligo News File

Sinn Fein has launched a Bill to outlaw public demonstrations against abortion.

Co-signed by Fianna Fail, Labour and the Green Party, the Bill provides for objectors to be hit with thousands of euros in fines and jail time. It also establishes a right to damages.

Official figures reveal that more than 13,000 preborn babies were put to death in just two years immediately following government enactment of the abortion Act.

Limerick Sinn Fein Senator Paul Gavan said the Bill was commissioned and drafted by Together for Safety, a campaign group working for legislation that, he told the Senate, would enforce safe access zones around all family planning centres, maternity hospitals and healthcare facilities that provide – or give information on – abortion.

The aim of the legislation is to criminalise all – usually peaceful and often prayerful – gatherings by the public within 100 metres of hospitals and GP offices offering abortion facilities with fines of 3,000 euros, jail sentences and civil recourse to damages.

Gardai and the Department of Health previously insisted that laws to create such so-called “safe access zones” at abortion centres were unnecessary since no issues warranting intervention had arisen.

But opening the debate, Senator Gavan asserted the legislation was needed “without further delay because women and pregnant people are entitled to access essential healthcare including access to termination of pregnancy services in privacy and dignity without being subject to intimidation, harassment and the subtle but deliberate chill effect that anti-choice protesters are bringing to hospital, family planning and GP settings across the State right now.”

Senator Sharon Keoghan disagreed. She said the calls for what she described as “protest prohibition zones, which, let us call a spade a spade, is what they are, do not appear to be coming from the grassroots but almost exclusively from special interest and political advocacy groups. Indeed,” she added, “the Bill itself was gifted to Senator Gavan by a faceless campaign group, Together for Safety. As legislators, we should be extra vigilant when it comes to outsourcing our constitutional duties to pop-up activists.”

Senator Ronan Mullen, Independent, branded the Bill as unconstitutional and not legally necessary. He said “I am afraid this legislation ultimately seeks to demonise people who want to offer positive alternatives to abortion. It is an attempt to deny there is a legitimate human rights argument in favour of protecting the unborn baby as well as a mother’s health and well-being.”

“This legislation is about driving the abortion agenda forward, lest it go backwards, as people wonder about the fact we have an increased number of abortions, with more than 13,000 lives lost since the legislation came in. That is an increase of between 40% and 75%, depending on how one calculates it, on the rate of abortions that would have been taking place, judging by the figures the Government supplied prior to the 2018 referendum.

“There are questions,” he said, “about the failure to guarantee precautionary pain relief where terminations of pregnancy take place in late pregnancy. There is also a refusal to provide that women would be offered an ultrasound as part of the counselling that is available. All of these things could, in a non-coercive and non-deceptive way, offer people real and positive alternatives to abortion in an attempt to save lives and continue to support women. However, all this is to be denied because there is a desire, not just to nail down abortion services and ensure they expand and continue, but to deprive those who would try in any way to offer an alternative point of view or an alternative source of hope and healing.”

Backing the Bill, Senator Lynn Boylan, Sinn Fein said:“women have been treated with disrespect, distrust and disdain since the founding of the State.” She stated the Bill was endorsed by the Abortion Rights Campaign, Ailbhe Smyth, Alliance for Choice, Amnesty Ireland, Clare ARC, Clare Women’s Network, Disabled Women Ireland, Donegal ARC, Dr. Mary Favier of Doctors for Choice, Dublin well Woman Centre, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Kerry for Choice, Leitrim ARC, Limerick Feminist Network, Limerick Women’s Network, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, the Northside Family Resource Centre, Offaly ARC, Rape Crisis Mid West, Rape Crisis Network of Ireland, Rebels for Choice, Safe Ireland, Sligo Asking for Angela, Tipperary for Choice and West Cork Rebels for Choice. It also enjoys the support of elected representatives in both Houses and from across the political spectrum. I would like to commend my colleague Senator Gavan, who is piloting its progress through the Oireachtas.”

Senator Clifford-Lee: “My colleague, Senator Chambers, and I visited Poland recently. On behalf of the all-party group on sexual and reproductive health and rights, we signed the Warsaw commitment to freedom of expression in Europe, and to the access and support of people’s sexual and reproductive rights.” Kevin Barry, she said, would have been pro-choice.

Senator Martin Conway, Fine Gael, said the termination of pregnancy services were now available in hospitals in this country “but they are not available to the level they should be because medical people are threatened, intimidated and are afraid to provide them because of the backlash from ultra-right, dangerous, fascist groups who think it is appropriate and proper to protest outside hospitals and other healthcare settings.”

Senator Annie Hoey, Labour, said: “only 10% of GPs nationally are providing abortion services at the moment.”

Thanking Sinn Fein for introducing the Bill, Senator Lisa Chambers, Fianna Fail spoke of her trip to Poland with Clifford-Lee on behalf of the all-party Oireachtas group on sexual and reproductive rights. It was, she said, “a surreal experience. One almost forgets how fraught and difficult the campaign was in this country and how it lasted for 35 years. In some ways, Poland reminded me of what Ireland was like 20 years ago. That is how much it has regressed and how scary a place it is to campaign for such issues.”

Stephen Donnelly, Fianna Fail, the Health Minister said it was originally hoped to include provisions on safe access to services in the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018. “However, the Department advised at that time that some complex legal and policy issues had been identified which necessitated further consideration. Prime among these are the constitutional and human rights issues which could be infringed upon should peaceful protest be prohibited. Freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion are fundamental rights in a democratic society. They are fundamental rights in our society. We have significant human rights commitments and obligations, both domestically in the Constitution and of course internationally. This means that there is a delicate balance to be struck in devising new legislative provisions to curtail rights in this area.

“Given the delicate balance that needs to be struck, my officials are currently drafting legislative proposals and consulting other Government Departments and An Garda Síochána to find the best way to provide for safe access. I want this to be expedited and I have made this clear to my officials. I have also had discussions on the matter with the Attorney General. I want to assure the House again that it is my intention to introduce legislative measures as soon as possible.”