Laws banning protests outside abortion facilities are extremely rare

Minister Simon Harris has promised to introduce “exclusion zones” to prevent protests outside hospitals, clinics and GP surgeries where abortions take place or abortion pills are prescribed.  This would make us the only country in Europe to have such a law, as Lawyers for Choice themselves effectively admitted in a blog recently. Legislation already exists, here in Ireland as in other countries, to restrict protest activities that cause harm to others.

Last September, the UK Home Secretary rejected a request for such legislation, claiming that “introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response, considering the experiences of the majority of hospitals and clinics, and considering that the majority of activities are more passive in nature.”

This decision was taken after an in-depth assessment of the protests outside abortion clinics, and a public consultation.

“It is an offence to display images or words that may cause harassment, alarm or distress. The police has power to impose conditions on a static demonstration if they believe it may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community or if the purpose of the assembly is to intimidate others. There are also offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 when someone pursues a course of conduct which they know will amount to the harassment of another person. Civil legislation also exists and can be used to restrict harmful protest activities. We have seen evidence that such legislation has been effective”, the Home Secretary said.

In October 2018, the New Zealand Law Commission took a similar position: “The Commission has not seen any clear evidence that the existing laws around intimidating and anti-social behaviour are inadequate, as would be required to justify the introduction of safe access zones.“

Exclusion zones only exist in some part of Canada, where abortion is permitted up to birth for any reason, in a small number of states in the US and in some parts of Australia.

In Britain, as Lawyers for Choice explain, “local authorities have narrow, time-limited powers to grant public space protection orders in respect of individual affected clinics under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.” Nothing exists nationally.

The peculiarity of the abortion regime in Ireland is that it involves GPs. Few other countries have abortion pills dispensed by general practitioners. This happens generally in clinics or hospitals. The true wrong lies not in the protests, but in the Government making abortion here a GP-led ‘service’.

In Ireland there has been only one protest outside a GP practice so far. In Galway, last week, a small group of pro-life activists, mostly women, were holding up non-graphic placards saying “Say no to abortion” or quoting the Hippocratic oath.

The protest was quiet and dignified. It didn’t interfere with the normal activities of the GP practice.

Another similar protest took place in front of the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. There was no intimidation or obstruction.

Nonetheless, as a response to those two episodes, a number of politicians and pro-abortion organisations have asked minister Simon Harris to introduce special legislation as soon as possible, as he promised during the recent Oireachtas debates on the new abortion law.

The details of this “exclusion zones” Bill are not known yet but intimidation, harassment, display of offensive material, or obstruction of access to care are already not permitted by law, and rightly so. There is no need to limit peaceful protests.

It is with good reason that the national law in no European country permits exclusion zones outside the premises of abortion providers; to do so is an attack on the basic right to protest, and we already have laws against harassment and intimidation.