Exclusion zones are an infringement on democracy, writes Denise Kelly
One of the greatest challenges for the pro-life movement is in combating false public perceptions – perceptions that by and large are created by those most vociferous in opposing what we stand for.
I get where the motivation comes from. If you’re going to defend the taking of innocent human life, it’s easier to dream up ways to besmirch your opponents than engage in reasoned discussion about the right to life with them.
But the abortion lobby, including some Government ministers, have gone a step further than merely demonising pro-life supporters. They are actually intent on driving conscientious pro-life people out of the medical profession and the entire area of pregnancy counselling.
An example of their intent can also clearly be seen in the increasingly bizarre insistence of this government to press ahead with the introduction of ‘exclusion zones’.
These ‘zones’ would be areas close to abortion facilities where it would become illegal to peacefully protest against abortion or to have a presence where support and positive alternatives to abortion are visible and accessible.
The Government like to describe these spaces as ‘safe-access zones’.
Now, anyone even remotely familiar with rhetorical manipulation will appreciate that this preferred phrasing is as deliberate as it is provocative.
It suggests the need for a protected space, far away from the allegedly ‘ominous threat’ of pro-life protestors.
Health Minister Simon Harris said as much when he spoke in the Seanad during the passage of the 2018 abortion Act.
After being complimented by Labour Senator, Ivana Bacik, on his commitment to introduce ‘safe access zones’, Minister Harris then offered her this revealing rationale for why he thinks such zones are necessary:
“I have an obligation as Minister for Health to ensure the safety of women and doctors accessing and working in the health service; therefore, I will bring forward that legislation in 2019.”
Just how the Minister arrived at the conclusion that peaceful pro-life protest, even silent protest, constitutes a threat to the ‘safety’ of women and doctors is unclear.
He certainly could not have arrived at that conclusion by looking at all the other examples of exclusion zones in other European jurisdictions for the simple reason that there are no such zones in existence within the EU.
This was recently confirmed in an in-depth analysis of the issue produced by the Oireachtas research service. That document concluded: “The Library and Research Service has not identified any European country with specific safe access zone legislative provisions.”
It also noted that while in July 2018, the British High Court upheld the decision of the London Borough of Ealing to institute a Public Spaces Protection Order to restrict demonstrations around a specific clinic, the Court also stressed that this decision should not be seen as a “green light” for local authorities to create such orders as a matter of course.
The Minister for Health shows no signs of accepting that fundamental freedoms and protections will be undermined, if not eroded entirely, should he recklessly persist in his drive to initiate legislation on exclusion zones”
In fact, we now know that in September 2018, the British Home Secretary announced that, following a review of abortion clinic protests in England and Wales, national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response and would not be introduced.
No such sense of legal or constitutional caution seems to have entered the heads of anyone in our own Government however, even after the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar conceded to the Dáil in April of this year that: “We do enter a difficult space in a democracy when you decide that certain opinions can’t be held, certain types of protests can’t happen. In a democracy, if you’re going to restrict free speech and if you’re going to restrict the right to protest, you need to be on very solid ground.”
Clearly the Minister for Health did not get the memo as he still shows no signs of accepting that fundamental freedoms and protections will be undermined, if not eroded entirely, should he recklessly persist in his drive to initiate legislation on exclusion zones.
In fact, Minister Harris has publicly asserted that it is his wish to provide “extra reassurance” to “service users” that he will press ahead.
This was despite his acknowledgement in the same statement that “there have been few demonstrations” to date and also his acknowledgement that the Minister for Justice had confirmed to him that several pieces of existing law are in place to offer “protection” in the highly unlikely event that any kind of threat would arise.
What is even more disturbing however, is that Minister Harris has said he will introduce exclusion zones because when it comes to abortion, “unfortunately it carries a risk of protest”.
In a properly functioning democracy, that statement should have set civil liberty and media alarm bells ringing.
Is this really where we are at? Where even the ‘risk of protest’ is sufficient to deny basic rights around freedom of speech and free and peaceful assembly?
If it is, and if we alone are left to raise our voice against it, then I suggest that rarely has the statement, “without the right to life, all other rights are meaningless” appeared so prophetic.
Denise Kelly is a spokesperson for the Pro Life Campaign.