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Irish TDs whipped to support “draconian” buffer zone Bill that criminalises offers of help outside abortion facilities and GP surgeries

TDs in the Irish Parliament voted in favour of a bill to introduce buffer zones that criminalise offers of help outside locations where abortions might be carried out and GP surgeries, with reports that Fine Gael TDs were whipped to support the legislation.

Last night, the Health (Termination of Pregnancy Services) (Safe Access Zones) Bill 2023 passed Committee Stage in the Dáil Éireann, which is the lower house of the Irish Parliament. TDs voted in favour of the Bill 113-10.

If it becomes law, the Bill will create a 100m zone around any location that might perform abortions, as well as GP surgeries and hospitals. In these zones, offers of help and offers of alternatives to abortion would be prohibited.

“They were basically told there is a whip on it”.

However, the Irish Independent reports that the Government Chief Whip said there was no provision for a free vote on this matter. Two Fine Gael TDs, Ciarán Cannon and John Paul Phelan made a request to the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, to allow a free vote on the controversial Bill, shortly before the vote on Wednesday evening.

Cannon described the proposed legislation as “draconian”, noting that Garda Commissioner Drew Harris had said it was “redundant”. In his appeal to the Taoiseach, Mr Phelan said he assumed there would be a free vote on this legislation.

Despite their intervention, Chief Whip Hildegarde Naughton told a party parliamentary meeting before the vote that legislating for buffer zones was a Government initiative and there was no scope for a free vote. The Irish Independent reports that Varadkar agreed. A source said “They were basically told there is a whip on it”.

Just last year, Varadkar acknowledged that the Government was “running into real difficulties around restricting peaceful protest and restricting free speech” as these buffer zones do. Despite his statements, the Taoiseach voted in favour of the buffer zones.

“A truly draconian measure”

In a statement on X, the Irish pro-life group, the Pro-Life Campaign, said “A truly draconian measure, this legislation would discriminate against the expression of pro-life views. A person would be prohibited from standing in the vicinity of a zone with optional pro-life leaflets which contain information on alternatives to abortion. By contrast, the same person would be well within their legal right to hand out a leaflet on any other issue”.

“In just 4.5 years, there have been over 34,000 abortions in Ireland. This shocking figure tells us there is very little problem with access. Rather the problem is with women in unplanned pregnancies not being provided with adequate supports and options”.

Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson, said “As has been pointed out over and over again, this sort of legislation is as unnecessary as it is draconian. There already exist laws to prevent harassment and intimidation and where they happen, the law should be enforced. This is punitive legislation, targeted at certain pro-lifers who intend to help mothers and offer an alternative to abortion”.

“Shockingly, the buffer zones in Ireland would be operational around all GP clinics and hospitals. In large cities like Dublin where GP clinics are dotted around the city, passersby could unwittingly enter one of these zones, enter into a private conversation with a friend seeking an abortion, and ‘influence’ their decision – an action the law expressly forbids. It is even possible that the annual March For Life could be legally prevented from taking place”.

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