Irish Abortion ‘Exclusion Zones’ — A Solution for a Non-Existent Problem

Even though police officials and health administrators have stated there has been no criminality associated with pro-life actions outside of abortion facilities, Ireland’s government continues to push forward legislation banning such advocacy.

Members of the group ‘Our Lady of Lourdes Protectors’ hold a prayer vigil outside the national maternity hospital in Dublin, Ireland.
Members of the group ‘Our Lady of Lourdes Protectors’ hold a prayer vigil outside the national maternity hospital in Dublin, Ireland. (photo: Damien Storan / Shutterstock)

DUBLIN — “No incidence of criminality has been reported or observed”: The head of the Irish police force, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, couldn’t have been clearer when in 2019 he was pressed on the need for so-called “exclusion zones” around abortion facilities.

Then Minister for Health Simon Harris (no relation) had written to Commissioner Harris to press him on the alleged need to ban protests or vigils within a certain distance of places carrying out abortions. In his reply, shared with the media, the commissioner described such a move as “redundant.”

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

Undeterred, the government set its face on drafting legislation that would create what ministers describe as “safe access” zones.

And the legislation that eventually emerged proved to be even more restrictive than initially thought, and would ban all gatherings, not just at facilities where abortions take place but at every doctor’s office, hospital or family planning clinic in the country.

The law has already passed every stage in the lower house of parliament, known as Dáil Éireann, and is currently before the upper house, Seanad Éireann. However, its passage is seen as a formality since the government has a majority in the upper house and members have been whipped to support the move.

But, it’s not just the stance of police that has observers questioning the pressing need for the law.

In an interview with The Irish Times in January, the medical director of the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, the country’s busiest maternity hospital, admitted when asked about alleged pro-life protests that he can’t recall when the last protest of this type took place outside his hospital.

Professor Seán Daly’s remarks reflect a statement late last year from Cork University Maternity Hospital that it had received no complaints from patients or staff about alleged pro-life protests.

University of Limerick Hospitals Group also issued a public statement confirming it had “no record” of pro-life protests and had received no complaints from patients, their partners, or staff.

According to Eilís Mulroy, a representative for the Pro-Life Campaign (PLC), “this series of public statements completely undermine the narrative being pushed by the government to justify its exclusion zone bill.

“The bill singles out pro-life citizens and criminalizes them for engaging in peaceful non-confrontational gatherings, including even silent prayer, within 100 meters of every GP clinic, hospital or family planning center in the country regardless of whether the facilities in question perform abortions or not,” she told the Register.

Censorship Zones?

Sen. Rónán Mullen, an independent member of the upper house of parliament, is one of the few legislators speaking out against the new law.

He says the safe access zones are, in reality, “censorship zones.”

He told the Register that he believes that the law is “knee-jerk and ill-thought legislation” and will create unforeseen consequences.

He points out, for example, that the new law will make it an offense to “communicate material to the public or a section of the public in a manner that is likely to influence the decision of another person around having an abortion,” or “otherwise engage in conduct directed at the public or a section of the public in a manner that is likely to influence the decision of a person in relation to availing of, or providing, termination of pregnancy services.”

Mullen said, “Think about what this means for a college society located near a college health-care setting. Could it really be that a person who speaks their mind about abortion at a college debate, or in a teaching hospital lecture theater, would be criminalized?”

“This is just one of the bizarre possible consequences of this,” he added.

The senator sees the issue in the wider context of freedom of expression, particularly focusing on college campuses.

“The very public fall from grace of Harvard’s President Claudine Gay is a reminder to us of the importance of the university sector in the life of society, when it comes to both the shaping of ideas and also the free expression of competing viewpoints,” Mullen said.

“Our universities are places where ideas are teased out, and people grow wiser hopefully. But if your view on abortion can’t be heard in a university, where can it be heard? Certainly not in the corridors of power. And that seems to be the general idea,” he said.

Freedom of Speech Restricted

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly last month admitted that the new law does restrict freedom of expression. Speaking before the upper house of parliament, he said that, in his view, certain “freedoms are subject to exceptions,” and he acknowledged that the bill would “create exemptions” to certain rights.

Sen. Sharon Keogan, another independent, has also been critical of the legislation insisting that it will not protect women, but rather will deny them the opportunity to avail of assistance to “willingly receive help and counsel when it is most needed.”

She 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.”

Mulroy of the PLC observed ruefully that the law “appears to be motivated by purely political and ideological reasons, in order to silence critics of the policies of the Irish Government on abortion.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Mullen, who sees the move as more designed to crush dissenting voices, even from among the small number of people who might gather outside medical facilities. During the same parliamentary debate, he dismissed the idea of such vigils being threatening, but insisted “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.”

“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,” Mullen told the Irish parliament. “The government has abandoned any desire to even talk about reducing the number of abortions.”

‘A Tragedy’

The Irish senator went on to reference the term “safe, legal and rare,” that is sometimes used by some pro-choice activists in the United States, before lamenting that even language like that is “not allowed” in contemporary Ireland.

“In today’s Ireland, you are not allowed to use that language. You are not allowed to say it should be rare.”

“The unborn child is a nothing in the eyes of these people,” he told the debate. “That is a tragedy for our country.”

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