For the past year, a new law has been in development to provide safe access zones around abortion clinics in Ireland.
The purpose of the bill is to protect patients and clinic staff from protestors who are trying to hinder their ability to access abortion services, but experts say the law requires more clarification.
On Wednesday, November 9, Gardaí spoke to the Oireachtas Health Committee and raised specific concerns about enforcing the rules.
The proposed legislation requires a designated safe zone of 100 metres around all healthcare facilities that provide abortion services including maternity hospitals and GP clinics, but Gardaí who have been called to respond to protestors at demonstrations said that these boundaries are not clearly marked.
Garda Deputy Commissioner Anne Marie McMahon says there is a lack of clarity about where the 100 metre safe zones begin and end, particularly because there are multiple entry and exit points for each facility. At the committee meeting, it was suggested that signage be placed to clearly indicate where the safe zones are, but concerns don’t end there.
The purpose of the law is to protect patients from harassment, but the bill defines harassment as, “…persistently following, watching, monitoring, pestering, or besetting the service provider,” which leaves a lot of room for interpretation. McMahon also shared that the current iteration of the bill falls short of providing Gardaí with guidelines on how to handle more serious offenders since they currently lack the power to detain individuals even if they are repeatedly intimidating patients.
Violators should face up to €2,500 or six months in prison, but so far, no arrests have been made. Rather, protestors occupying safe access zones outside abortion clinics are issued a warning by Gardaí and asked to leave. In addition, there is currently no system in place to keep track of protestors who repeatedly violate the safe zones.
Kate Mulkerrins, who is the executive director of legal and compliance with An Garda Síochána, said that it is particularly difficult to keep track of protestors moving in large groups. Without an established record-keeping system in place, protestors can simply leave one healthcare facility with a warning and go on to protest at another one without repercussion.
A survey conducted in 2020 showed that 77% of people in Ireland support a ban on protests outside of abortion clinics, but research by NUI Maynooth determined that in 2021, anti-abortion protests took place outside healthcare facilities in 10 counties in Ireland.
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