Anti-abortion protesters outside GP clinics and maternity hospitals should face prison sentences of up to two years, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (Ihrec) has said.
In a submission on proposed legislation to introduce “safe zones” around abortion care providers, published on Thursday, the commission said anti-abortion activity at such premises was “harmful to the wellbeing of women accessing abortion services” and “not rare”. Safe zones should be “legislated for immediately”, it said.
Government approved the General Scheme of the Health (Termination of Pregnancy Services (Safe Access Zones)) Bill, in August, saying it aimed to “ensure safe access to Termination of Pregnancy (Top) services for women, service providers and their staff throughout the country”.
It proposes exclusion zones around any premises or building where abortion services can legally be provided.
The Bill, if enacted, would prohibit “conduct ... which is intended to or may reasonably have the effect of influencing the decision of a person in relation to availing of, or providing, termination of pregnancy services, or interfering [with availing of abortion], or both” within 100m of a provider.
While it “must be recognised”, said Ihrec, “an anti-abortion perspective is in many instances linked to strong religious beliefs, with some people feeling a religious or moral duty to protest even at the expense of upsetting or distressing other people”.
“The decision to terminate involves an exercise of core personal autonomy, in a deeply private context. A stranger seeking to interfere with or influence that decision through confrontation is likely to cause tremendous upset at a difficult time,” it said.
Citing research from Maynooth University published in July, it said 46.6 per cent of abortion providers have experienced anti-abortion protests outside their premises.
“These activities have been cited as an impediment to the provision of abortion services in the State, with only one in 10 GPs believed to be providing such services.”
It said women in areas where there are few GPs providing services face increased barriers accessing abortion services, with these barriers exacerbated in the cases of poorer, immigrant, Traveller and disabled women.
The submission said the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by Ireland in 2018, “requires that disabled people are provided with the same standard of healthcare and programmes as provided to other people, and that health services are provided as close as possible to people’s own communities, including in rural areas”.
And while the proposed legislation described anti-abortion protests at health centres as “an offence”, Ihrec said the impact of such protests “is likely to be harmful to the wellbeing of women accessing abortion services”.
“As such, the commission considers that a response that engages the criminal law, as opposed to merely civil remedies like an injunction, is justified since civil measures are not effective to address widespread and repeated protests.
“The commission considers that it would not be disproportionate to also provide for an indictable offence ... with a two-year maximum sentence, for repeat offenders who engage in egregious forms of confrontation.”