Irish coalition plan to ban pro-life support outside abortion clinics

A proposed five-year plan for Ireland will establish “exclusion zones” around all medical facilities where abortions take place or are facilitated, including hospitals and GP clinics.

These “exclusion zones” will criminalise free speech and ban individuals from offering emotional and practical support to women in crisis and unexpected pregnancies.

The proposed 126-page Programme for Government was agreed upon this week by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Green party leaders and will now pass to internal ratification by party members.

If approved, the five-year plan will see the three parties enter into a coalition government in Dublin with the intention of setting up the criminalised free speech zones.

Leo Varadkar, who will be part of that coalition and take turns in leading it, has previously indicated that criminalised free speech zones could be unconstitutional.

In April last year, Leo Varadkar told parliamentarians in the Dáil: “We are running into real difficulties around restricting peaceful protest and restricting free speech.” 

He conceded that in placing a ban on peaceful protest, “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.”

Last September, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris told the Minister for Health that there was no evidence to suggest that there is threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour directed towards persons utilising abortion services. 

“I re-confirm my views expressed at our recent meeting that protests to date at such centres have not contravened the law and are peaceful”, he said.

In addition to “exclusion zones” the Programme for Government notes that a review of the abortion legislation is due in 2021.

While it does not give details of what changes the Government plan on making, during coalition negotiations the Green party asked for the removal of the three-day waiting period before a woman obtains an abortion.

Eilís Mulroy of the Pro Life Campaign told Laois Nationalist: “It is a regressive move for Fianna Fáil and the Green Party negotiating teams to have joined Fine Gael in supporting the introduction of censorship zones which amount to such an obvious breach of civil liberties. These exclusion zones which deny peaceful protest and free speech exist in no other part of Europe.

“In recent correspondence to the Minister for Health, the Garda Commissioner described the introduction of such zones as unwarranted. If introduced, they would selectively single out one group of people in society, namely members of the pro-life movement. Those who have been pushing for exclusion zones know full well that pro-life supporters are respectful and dignified when engaging in street outreach, and are there to offer positive support to women.”

Ms Mulroy said: “The absence of meaningful supports and the lack of any reference to alternatives to abortion within the draft Programme for Government is also profoundly disappointing. The Programme for Government was an opportunity for this potential new administration to demonstrate even a remote interest in offering women genuine and meaningful alternatives to abortion. Instead they chose to completely bypass this opportunity and to focus their attention instead on sticking to a policy of exclusion and the silencing of pro-life voices that has already been assessed as completely unnecessary and legally redundant.

“As well as opposing the introduction of censorship zones, we will continue to work for proper supports for women facing an unplanned pregnancy and draw the public’s attention to the refusal of many within the main political parties to commit to helping those who are conflicted about having an abortion and would benefit hugely if adequate supports were in place.”

Legal challenge

The use of criminalised free speech zones around abortion clinics is going to be be challenged at the European Court of Human Rights by a mother who kept her daughter after receiving pro-life help the zones seek to criminalise.

Alina Dulgheriu launched the legal challenge because she wants other potential mothers to receive the same practical and emotional support she was offered – support which led to her keeping her daughter, Sarah.

The Be Here for Me website tells just some of the many stories of women who have been helped by people outside abortion clinics.

Alina Dulgheriu, who has brought legal action against Ealing Council said:

“My little girl is here today because of the real practical and emotional support that I was given by a group outside a Marie Stopes centre, and I am going to appeal this decision to ensure that women do not have this vital support option removed.

“I will continue to stand up for the women whose voices have been sidelined throughout this process and for women who need life-saving support today but cannot get it. 

“Ealing Council could have taken action in a way that would have protected women and safeguarded the essential help offered at the gate. Instead, they criminalised charity and attempted to remove dedicated and caring individuals from public space without justification.

“It is very clear that many are opposed to Ealing’s ban on peaceful and charitable activity, and like me, they want to see support available to vulnerable women where it is most needed. 

“I cannot imagine a society where a simple offer of help to a woman who might want to keep her child is seen as a criminal offence. I refuse to accept that women should be denied the opportunity to receive help where they want to keep their child.”

Elizabeth Howard, Be Here For Me spokesperson said: 

Eight years ago, Alina Dulgheriu found herself jobless, homeless and alone after an unplanned pregnancy. She’d been fired from her job as a live-in nanny and abandoned by her boyfriend. 

“She went to Marie Stopes to get advice on her options, but all they could offer her was an abortion. She didn’t want that but didn’t know where to turn.

“Her life was changed when she met a pro-life volunteer at the gates of the abortion centre who told her that she did have options, that there was help available, and that she could keep her baby if she wanted.

“She accepted the offer of help and her daughter Sarah was born. She is now seven years old, a beautiful, lively and beloved child.

“Ealing Council has banned pro-lifers from helping women like Alina. Alina has challenged their decision in court, but three times the courts have ignored her story.

“In five years of the pro-life vigil’s work in Ealing, more than 500 women accepted an offer of help and chose to keep their baby rather than have an abortion. These women have tried again and again to have their voices heard, but they are ignored.”