The Cabinet approved plans on Wednesday to introduce Exclusion Zones (so-called ‘Safe Access Zones’) to ban peaceful pro-life protests close to abortion facilities.
The move sets a very dangerous precedent for denying freedom of speech and the right to peaceful assembly in public areas. It is a wholly disproportionate response to the risk that a tiny number of people may at some point in the future engage in harassing behaviour near a facility where abortions are performed.
Were such incidents to occur, the authorities already have wide-ranging powers to deal with the situation under existing public order laws. Senior members of An Garda Síochána have repeatedly made this point clear to the Minister for Health, yet he and his government colleagues persist in pressing ahead with their regressive and draconian proposal, for no other reason than to appease a group of radical pro-abortion campaigners who have lobbied non-stop for such a law.
Minister Donnelly acknowledged in the Seanad as recently as 10th February that introducing such a law “pushes up against civil liberties”. He also openly admitted that he was ignoring the advice of An Garda Síochána and instead taking guidance on the matter from radical pro-abortion groups like Together for Safety.
Together for Safety it should be noted has an appalling record when it comes to making accurate public statements. Last year, the UL Hospitals Group was forced to take the unusual step of issuing a statement refuting claims that there had been “intimidatory” anti-abortion protests outside its facilities.
It is disgraceful that the Minister for Health this week publicly thanked groups like Together for Safety in official press releases for “informing the development of legislative proposals”. His public praise of these groups does at least give the game away on what’s really driving the bill he plans to introduce.
The Government’s exclusion zone proposal has nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with singling out a particular category of people, namely those who oppose abortion, and criminalising the expression of their views. The fact that citizens could be jailed under this new proposal for silently expressing a position in public is utterly alarming.
It is part of a worrying trend in suppressing freedom of expression and basic civil liberties in the name of public safety. Recently, in France, an ad showing happy children with Down syndrome was banned and deemed “inappropriate” on the grounds that it was “likely to disturb women” who had abortions. Where do we draw the line as a society? When politicians and most of the media are in lockstep on the issue of abortion, who calls them out when they demonise their opponents and join forces to introduce draconian measures to suppress the freedom of expression of those they happen to disagree with? Where are all the civil libertarians speaking up? Where are all the measured voices of reason? It’s a legitimate question to raise.
We have reached a point in this country where the Minister for Health is taking his guidance on the issue of exclusion zones from pro-abortion groups whose claims have been totally discredited. That’s no way to operate in a supposedly functioning democracy. The Government’s ‘exclusion zone’ bill is not a step forward for civility and safety, but rather a retrograde step backwards. It is a proposal that must be strenuously opposed.
In a statement on Wednesday, Councillor Sarah O’Reilly of Aontú described the Government’s plans as totally undemocratic and unworkable and called on them to abandon the proposal and consider the ramifications and dangerous precedent it would set if they pressed ahead.