How the State plans to create and police ‘safe zones’ for those attending hospitals and clinics for an abortion will “hopefully” be published by Government later this year.
Detailed measures to ensure the safety of women, and freedom from harassment by anti-abortion demonstrators are being worked out as part of the Health Termination of Pregnancy Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill 2022.
On Wednesday, officials from the Department of Health said the Bill was identified as a “priority” for Government and the detail of how to effectively provide for the safety of women availing of abortion services would “barring unforeseen obstacles”, be published “soon”.
Officials told the Oireachtas Committee on Health that heads of the Bill were published and advice on aspects of the legislation was being taken from the Office of Parliamentary Counsel and the Office of the Attorney General.
However, Senator Paul Gavan told the committee meeting in Leinster House on Wednesday the Bill had “been a priority since the Government was formed” and he asked the officials would the Bill be introduced before the summer recess this year.
Committee chairman Sean Crowe welcomed the engagement of the officials on the Bill but said progress so far “hasn’t been ideal”. He said the committee “see it still very much as a work in progress”, and pointed out that members felt it “difficult to scrutinise legislation based only “on the heads (broad outlines) of the Bill”.
He said after engagement with the Garda on what powers were open to the force to protect women from harassment, he still had concerns about issues about definition of safe zones in “the curtilage” of buildings where services were offered.
Mr Crowe said he had concerns that women were free from harassment and asked what would happen in large hospitals such as St James’s and St Vincent’s in Dublin where the access to the hospital was overlooked by houses and adjacent buildings.
He raised the issue of demonstrators using large-scale projections on walls, the use of telephoto lenses and other forms of technology that could be intimidating to women service users.
Bernard Durkan welcomed progress on the Bill but said it was important that “protest doesn’t prevent and shouldn’t prevent the availability of services” that were lawfully provided.
He said members should not forget the tragic and horrific reasons why the majority of Irish people had voted to allow abortion services.
Catriona Mason of the Department of Health’s bioethics unit told the members the Bill was being progressed “with priority” by the Department of Health, with the aid of the Office of Parliamentary Counsel and the Office of the Attorney General.
Pressed by members of the committee for a timeline, Ms Mason first said the legislation would be “hopefully” published this year and later said “barring unforeseen obstacles” it would be published “soon”.
Muiris O’Connor, assistant secretary general of the Department of Health, said the Bill was a “complex piece of legislation seeking as it does to balance a range of competing rights”.
He said it had been decided that the use of “curtilage” as a demarcation zone would no longer be used. Instead he said, the parameters of the safe zones would be calculated as being 100 metres from the entrance of the healthcare facility to a public road or street.
He said the definition of “public place” had also been revised to mean any place where the public have access, through right or permission, subject to a fee or free of charge.
Mr O’Connor said “from a policy perspective” it was also intended to include private property in certain instances. He said this measure was “the subject of ongoing engagement with counsel”.
Mr O’Connor said “recklessness” and “the intention for prohibited conduct in safe access zones” were also being discussed as part of the Bill. He also said the operation of warnings to crowds was being considered by counsel and counsel’s opinion was awaited.