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The law will designate a protest exclusion zone of 100 metres around all healthcare facilities capable of providing abortion services. Leah Farrell

Still no timeline for safe access zone bill, deemed a 'priority' by Government in 2021

The legislation was meant to be published last March.

A TIMELINE FOR the delivery of safe access zone legislation, which was deemed a ‘priority’ by Government in 2021, remains uncertain due to an array of outstanding issues, an Oireachtas Committee heard today.

The law will designate a protest exclusion zone of 100 metres around all healthcare facilities capable of providing abortion services, including those not currently offering termination of pregnancy.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly told Cabinet in September 2021 that he was “fully committed” to introducing the legislation. 

Plans to legislate for the zones were approved by Cabinet in July 2022. 

Speaking before the Cabinet vote, Minister Donnelly said: “I would love to see this pass through all stages into law and become operational in this calendar year.”

However, the Joint Committee on Health has been informed that complexities surrounding how the Bill – which was described as a “priority again today – will engage with existing harassment law and prosecuting systems mean its progress has been stalled while the Department seeks advice.

It is now believed that the legislation could be delivered within “the weeks ahead”, according to Department of Health officials Muiris O’ Connell and Catriona Mason, but the trajectory of its implementation remains undetermined.

When asked by Senator Martin Conway when the legislation will be enacted once it is passed, O’Connell said that “it’s really hard to say”, while Mason said that the delivery of the Bill was a “priority”.

Central issues

How An Garda Síochána will issue warnings to those in violation of the law, and the weight these warnings will carry, are among the central issues to be resolved before the Bill can be delivered.

In his opening statement, O’Connell, the assistant secretary of the Department of Health, said that the operation of an unlimited temporal, geographical warning is still under “active consideration” by the Advisory Council, but is “unlikely to be capable of constituting an ingredient of criminal offending”.

This was flagged as an issue in cracking down on “relay protesters” – those who travel from one safe access zone to another and repeatedly breach the legislation – by Sinn Féin’s Health spokesperson David Cullinane.

Whether Gardaí will maintain a record of warnings issued was also queried by committee members.

O’Connell said that there is currently “no facility in Garda practice to record a warning”, but that the Department is awaiting advice from the Attorney General on the matter.

The Bill’s reliance on existing harassment legislation was also disputed, particularly Section 10 of the Non Fatal Offences Against the Persons Act 1997.

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins described the legislation as inadequate.

She said: “In part one of section 10 there’s a requirement for this persistent harassment about him or her. You have to have the same person consistently harassing the same person.

“You could have these relay situations again where multiple different people who work in a hospital may get harassed on their way in and that doesn’t really come under it.”

O’Connell said Senator Higgins’ point will be brought for discussion with An Garda Síochána, the Department of Justice and the Office of Parliamentary Counsel.

There is uncertainty as to whether existing legislation would protect service providers from harassment outside of safe access zones – in their family homes, for example.

It is understood this is the subject of ongoing discussion between the department and the counsel.

“Key focus”

The parameters of the zones will now be calculated as being 100 metres from the entrance of the healthcare facility to a public road or street, while the definition of public place has also been revised to mean any place that the public has access to, whether as of right or by permission.

O’Connell said that while the legislation deals with the safety of those accessing and providing services, he believes the Bill will assist in the department’s “key focus” of expanding the rollout of termination services more broadly.

He said: “The safe access legislation that we’re considering now is only one element of a suite of proactive supports that the Department will need to formulate in supporting the further rollout of the service.”

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