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Health Minister says he is 'committed' to bringing in safe access zones around health facilities

The Programme for Government committed to creating these zones aimed to prevent protests outside medical facilities.

Image: RollingNews.ie

THE HEALTH MINISTER has said he is “fully committed” to introducing legislation on safe access zones around healthcare facilities as promised in the Programme for Government.

It follows a report in the Irish Examiner this morning saying the plans for legislation creating exclusion zones around facilities providing abortion services had been shelved in favour of relying on existing public order legislation.

An exclusion zone would mean protests would not be permitted in the area surrounding a healthcare facility.

Protesters have gathered in the past outside maternity units and hospitals, including a protest against abortion services held outside the National Maternity Hospital in January last year. 

77% of people support a ban on protests outside facilities that provide abortion services, according to a 2020 poll carried out by Amárach Research for RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live/The Journal

A statement from Stephen Donnelly this afternoon said: “As Minister for Health I am fully committed to the introduction of legislation on ‘safe access’ zones around our healthcare facilities. 

“It was originally intended to provide for safe access to termination of pregnancy services in the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018. However, a number of legal issues were identified which necessitated further consideration.”

Donnelly said he is working with officials in the department to “ensure safe access around medical facilities”.

“I have also been engaging with a range of stakeholders and civil society groups in relation to the review of the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Act which is being finalised with a view to it starting in the coming weeks.”

Donnelly said women’s healthcare and the provision of safe services for all women is a priority for him as minister. 

A statement from the Green Party said it “welcomes the clarification from the Minister for Health that he is fully committed” to introducing safe access zones.

“This commitment was negotiated by the Green Party as part of the programme for government and it will work with Minister Donnelly to ensure the provision of safe services for all women.”

Earlier today Green Party TDs Patrick Costello and Neasa Hourigan spoke out in relation to the Examiner report. 

Costello said the commitment to provide these safe access zones “must be followed through” and Hourigan said the commitment to establishing safe access zones for people accessing abortion services “must be adhered to”. 

Following the minister’s statement, Hourigan said: “Though the confusion this morning is unfortunate it is crucial for the minister to now set out a clear timeline for the completion of that legislation.”

In response to a parliamentary question asked by Hourigan last month, Donnelly said there have been a “limited number of reports of protests or other actions relating to termination of pregnancy” since 2019. 

“This is an extremely positive development. It suggests that these services have bedded in relatively smoothly to date and are becoming a normal part of the Irish healthcare system, as intended,” Donnelly wrote on 13 July. 

“Where problems do arise with protests outside healthcare services, there is existing public order legislation in place to protect people accessing services, staff and local residents.”

He said the Department of Health has engaged with gardaí on safe access to services. 

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Labour Party Senator Annie Hoey said the government’s commitment “must be implemented” as soon as possible to “prevent increased distress for women experiencing crisis pregnancy who seek to access legal services”. 

“Protests outside hospitals and clinics are intimidating for all those seeking to access medical services, for any visitors and for staff seeking access to work,” Hoey said in a statement. 

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