As the Government examine legislation to create “Buffer Zones” around Hospitals where anti-abortion protesters cannot assemble, Heather Reynolds considers the potential threat this poses to the right to protest, and other groups it may affect.

With the new legislation regarding termination of pregnancies coming into full effect from the 1st January, all eyes are on how smoothly this transition to more comprehensive medical care will run. Many have criticised the lack of time given for hospitals to expand their resources to include voluntary termination, and the lack of funding allocated to this expansion, leaving many wondering how immediately effective this care will be. While these queries remain valid, and the issues they may cause remain deeply important to those who may seek abortion services, a pressing issue at present is the question of “exclusion zones” at hospitals that provide these services.

As many around Dublin saw first hand leading up to the referendum, those who disagree with the provision of abortion services in Ireland are not afraid to publicly protest against the new legislation, and are unafraid to do so using graphic and disquieting imagery. These images were often paired with jarring slogans and information, with varying levels of legitimacy in their sourcing. With a history of this type of public demonstration, it is no wonder that some fear the continuation of these protests, this time outside hospitals around Ireland. This has led to Minister for Health Simon Harris working on implementing these aforementioned “exclusion zones”, areas where individuals cannot hold demonstrations, protests, or distribute leaflets, at hospitals around the country. This was first proposed by Minister Harris shortly after the result of the referendum, when the memory of these protests were very present to all involved, and to many it remains a good idea.

However, these zones pose an interesting moral question, as it pits personal comfort against a legal right held by all Irish residents; the right to peaceful assembly. According to Irish law, you have the right to assemble anywhere, at any time, so long as you do so peacefully, without weapons, and on public property, which includes the space surrounding institutions such as hospitals. As the proposed legislation is not due to be released until the end of February, it is unclear just how restrictive it will be, whether it will simply prevent individuals and groups from protesting abortion services, or if it will ban all forms of assembly outside medical facilities. Theoretically, this has the potential to prevent future strike action or protests against other controversial medical practices, such as electroconvulsive therapy or the current practices surrounding transgender healthcare in Ireland.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has come out in support of the exclusion zones, and has hit out at the recent protests, however he has said that this legislation does need to be correctly balanced so that it does not impact the right to free speech, and by extension, the right to public assembly. However, one or the other does need to be compromised, and so it becomes a case of which is the lesser of two evils; rolling back the scope of the right to public assembly, or the continued distress caused to the greater public by the nature of these protests?

Anti-abortion protests are not a new phenomenon internationally. These graphic, intense demonstrations have been a part of life in countries with legal abortion for a long time, most notably in the United States, with Planned Parenthood being a major target. Planned Parenthood is a partially government funded organisation that provides reproductive healthcare and family planning methods to individuals across the US, and as a part of their services, provide terminations at many of their centres. Since they are well known, and do receive government funding, they are routinely targeted, with mixed results. While they rarely see change in legislation or funding due to these protests, they can often scare women away from the centres due to their intensity. These women may be attending the service to enquire about IVF treatment, to bring their newborn in for a check-up, to get a smear test, or perhaps, to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. These demonstrations do not discriminate in who they effect. Protesters in these cases do not care why you are going to see your doctor, simply that your doctor works in a building that sometimes also provides abortions. This is where the main issue with these protests lie.

When protests get this intense, women are scared away from following up on their health. They miss appointments because they do not want to have to interact with this distressing imagery and sometimes misleading commentary, and they may not have the time to reschedule. Thus, the issue of the protests moves away from being a comfort issue and instead becomes a healthcare issue. It is widely agreed that there is no room for intimidation in Ireland when it comes to barriers to access medical care, and that is the form of barrier these protests create. When it starts to actively impact people’s ability to access healthcare it becomes an even muddier issue, as these exclusion areas remain a potential start point for rolling back free speech and the right to public assembly. However they may be the only thing that can prevent women getting the medical care they need without fear, particularly pregnant women, whom these protesters have a history of focusing on abroad.

This legislation will end up being a balancing act between not rolling back the right to public assembly too far, and ensuring that individuals who wish to stand against abortion access do not have their right to free speech infringed upon, and safeguarding the access to healthcare that women need without persecution. The rolling back of rights can be infectious, and one small change can open a door to much, much larger ones, and so this is a bill to keep an eye on, particularly for those in trade unions, and within that group, particularly nurses and midwives. Public assembly is an integral right in any country, and it is not something we should allow be swept away under a more palatable guise.