Anti-abortion protest sparks renewed calls for exclusion zones

Simon Harris ‘appalled’ by protest by 100 people outside National Maternity Hospital

Fine Gael  Senator Catherine Noone said the imposition of exclusion zones ‘should have been done before now’ and need to be a priority for the start of the new political term. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone said the imposition of exclusion zones ‘should have been done before now’ and need to be a priority for the start of the new political term. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

There have been renewed calls for the imposition of exclusion zones outside maternity units after anti-abortion activists protested outside the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin on New Year’s Day.

About 100 people, some carrying small crosses and banners, demonstrated outside the hospital on Holles Street for several hours on Wednesday.

Obstetrician and hospital staff member Prof Mary Higgins, who posted a video of the protest online, said it took place beneath the windows of a postnatal ward and “in front of people leaving after a miscarriage”.

Minister for Health Simon Harris said he was “appalled” to see the protest and promised cross-party meetings would take place this month on the proposal for exclusion zones.

Constitutional

He said he has been engaging with the Attorney General about how best to bring about the proposal in a manner that was constitutional.

But Mr Harris’s Fine Gael colleague Senator Catherine Noone said the imposition of exclusion zones “should have been done before now” and needed to be a priority for the start of the new political term.

Former HSE director general Tony O’Brien said the issue should ideally be dealt with before the next election. “Any politician wanting to wrap themselves in the flag of the Repeal of the 8th needs also to accept that there is key unfinished business,” he commented on Twitter.

Previous anti-abortion protests saw a number of baby-sized coffins placed on the ground outside the NMH.

After abortion was legalised last January, anti-abortion groups staged protests outside a number of the 10 maternity units, as well as individual GP surgeries, offering the service.

On one occasion, anti-abortion graffiti was daubed on the walls of a GP premises in the midlands.

Upsetting

Pro-choice groups, describing the protests as potentially upsetting to women using the maternity units or GP surgeries, called for laws providing for a buffer zone outside such facilities where protests would be banned.

Mr Harris, while supportive of the proposal, has struggled to progress it. The protests have continued, though with reduced size and frequency.

In September, Garda commissioner Drew Harris said existing laws were adequate to deal with protests outside healthcare centres that provide abortion care.

Mr Harris’s spokeswoman said at the time that he had been examining measures undertaken in other countries, and clarified that there was no legal advice against legislating in this area.

The Department of Health wrote to maternity units in October advising them of existing legislation that prohibits “certain behaviours”.

“For example, gardaí can take action under existing public order legislation if people are being harassed, or if access into and out of health service providers is being interfered with or impeded,” it said.

The information note advised maternity units to prepare for protests in consultation with local gardaí.