Legislation to provide safe access "without harassment" to hospital for women and girls seeking abortion services has been introduced by Sinn Féin Senator Paul Gavan as the Government confirmed it is also drafting a Bill.
Mr Gavan told the Seanad that daily protests being held outside hospitals across the State are attempting “intimidate and cause upset” to those accessing terminations.
“They are invading the privacy and bodily autonomy of women and pregnant people at a profoundly vulnerable and sensitive time. People should not have to access healthcare like this,” he said, adding that people had “fundamental rights to privacy and dignity, especially so when they are visiting a hospital”.
When legislation was introduced to provide for abortion services in the wake of the 2018 referendum on the Eighth Amendment, a separate Bill was promised to prevent anti-abortion protesters from going within a certain distance of hospitals.
Earlier this year there was speculation the legislation would be shelved as groundless and Mr Gavan expressed concern about Government replies to this effect.
But Seanad Leader and Fianna Fail Senator Lisa Chambers said Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly had told her his department is drafting a Bill on safe access. She acknowledged the expectation that the legislation would have advanced further but “he has taken a great deal of advice on board, some of which is to say that it’s not needed.
“He is clear in his commitment to get the legislation over the line,” she stressed adding that it did not matter which Bill was used “as long as it gets done. Whichever happens more quickly is the best option.”
Introducing the Safe Access to Termination of Pregnancy Services Bill which has cross-party support, Mr Gavan said credit for the legislation goes to Together for Safety, a national campaign group for safe access zones.
The legislation aims to “protect the free and unencumbered access to facilities providing legal termination of pregnancy services” and to “protect individuals providing or facilitating legal termination of pregnancy services from harassment”.
Mr Gavan said “there are people monitoring, marching, praying and watching women and pregnant people going in and out of maternity hospitals.
He quoted comments from two women who encountered the protesters: “She asked me if I had an appointment across the road. I presumed she was making small talk as she also had one so I said yes I did.
“She told me she and her friends were praying that no babies were murdered in the hospital that day.”
A second woman said “they were sprinkling holy water and saying prayers outside our hospital setting while there are women having miscarriages, or having stillbirths each week or carrying their babies out in white coffins.”
Labour Senator Rebecca Moynihan who seconded the legislation said the protests outside hospitals and GP surgeries have a “chill effect” on the 10 per cent of GPs and just over half of maternity units which are providing abortion services.
She added that the women being intimidated “include women who are coming out of the hospital having received terrible news”.
Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly said “safe access zones should have been a part of the original (abortion) legislation in 2018, but we are where we are”.
Independent Senator Ronan Mullen said of the protesters that they had asked “those who meet to give witness to the dignity of all human life and to the possibility of positive alternatives” to “do this in a way that is very respectful”.
He added that “we need to be careful about trying to pretend that there is no counter narrative on abortion. There is and there always will be. “
The Seanad leader said she took his remarks on board that there is a “significant and different view out there”. She added that there is a very delicate balancing act” between balancing freespeech and the freedom to demonstrate peacefully, and “we need to be careful on that front”.