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Sunday 24 September 2023 Dublin: 16°C
Sasko Lazarov National Maternity Hospital
Stephen Donnelly The intimidation of women seeking abortion services will soon be illegal
The health minister outlines new legislation agreed by Cabinet today for safe access zones outside abortion providers.

EVERYONE HAS A right to be treated with dignity and respect when accessing medical care.

Unfortunately, we are aware of demonstrations that have taken place outside hospitals and GP practices providing termination services.

These demonstrations have taken various forms. They have included the placing of small white coffins outside the National Maternity Hospital and the display of disturbing images elsewhere. Some demonstrations have taken place outside hospitals, while others have been held outside GP clinics.

These demonstrations can cause anxiety and distress to those accessing and providing services. They seek to intimidate and deter women from accessing these services – and our healthcare workers from providing them.


A recent study seeking to elicit the experiences of those who accessed, or attempted to access an abortion in Ireland reported that one in seven participants said they encountered anti-abortion activity while attempting to access abortion care.

We in Government have a duty to protect people from unwanted harassment, intimidation and distress when accessing abortion services. And we have a similar duty to those providing such services.

Our Programme for Government commits to “establish exclusion zones around medical facilities.” Earlier today, the Government approved my proposal and Heads of Bill outlining how we plan to legislate for the designation of safe access ones.

These are zones around healthcare premises that will safeguard access to termination of pregnancy services. A number of other jurisdictions have introduced similar legislation.

Although the provisions can vary, the legislation prohibits a range of behaviour such as intimidating, harassing, or obstructing a person from obtaining a termination in a safe access zone – or a healthcare worker from providing these services.

The draft General Scheme has been formulated after extensive policy formulation and with the detailed input of eminent Senior and Junior Counsel, as recommended by the Attorney General.

The legislation

The new legislation we are proposing will designate specified healthcare premises and 100 metres surrounding them as safe access zones.

This means it would be illegal to harass, insult, or seek to influence those attending these healthcare services, or the staff working in them.

Importantly, the prohibition would not be on the right to protest but on the exercise of that right within limited areas, and where that protest intends to, or could reasonably, have the effect of influencing a woman’s decision to access service or interfere with her access.

In recognition of the need to balance a range of rights and proportionality, the legislation will also include some exceptions, including otherwise lawful activity within 100 metres of the Houses of the Oireachtas.

In implementing the outcome of the 2018 referendum and the enactment of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018, termination of pregnancy services were mainstreamed into our health service. This differs from some other jurisdictions where dedicated clinics or facilities provide such services exclusively.

Consistent with this approach, the Safe Access Zone legislation will not highlight the specific service sites where termination of pregnancy services are actively provided. We propose to designate safe access zones around sites that can provide termination of pregnancy services in accordance with the Act of 2018, not just those that do.

There will be safeguards to ensure that only those who make an intentional decision to engage in prohibited conduct within a safe zone are criminalised. The legislation would provide that the Garda Síochána give people an opportunity to comply with the legislation by first issuing the person with a “warning”. This would provide the person concerned with the opportunity to regulate their behaviour and avoid committing an offence. A range of penalties will be available to the courts where a person is convicted of an offence under the proposed legislation.

Gap in the law

While we have legislation relating to public order in Ireland which prohibits certain behaviours, such as breaches of the peace, or wilful obstruction, it does not deal with the full range of behaviours we have seen outside healthcare facilities. This Safe Access Zone legislation aims to fill this gap.

Our proposed legislation has a number of policy objectives.

We want to:

  • Protect the safety and well-being of women accessing termination services, as well as healthcare staff and others.
  • Respect the privacy and dignity of women accessing termination services, as well as healthcare staff.
  • Protect the freedom to access termination of pregnancy services without impediment, judgement or unsolicited attempts to influence healthcare decisions or decisions to offer termination of pregnancy services.

I am committed to introducing this legislation as soon as possible and would like to acknowledge the work of Together for Safety in informing the development of our legislative proposals.

My Department will now engage directly with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, seeking any observations they may have on the General Scheme, which can be considered in the drafting of a final Bill.

A woman who has made the very personal decision to seek an abortion is entitled to keep that decision private and to access healthcare services with dignity. She should not have to deal with attempts to influence, dissuade or deter her from accessing these lawful healthcare services outside her doctor’s clinic, or a hospital. Healthcare staff providing these services should not be subjected to similar tactics directly outside their place of work.

With this legislation, we will send a very clear message that practices that aim to deter, stigmatise, or shame those seeking to access termination of pregnancy care will not be tolerated outside healthcare facilities in this country.

Stephen Donnelly TD is the Minister for Health. He was appointed to this role in June 2020. He has been a TD for the Wicklow constituency since the 2011 general election.


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