Safe Access to Termination of Pregnancy Services Bill 2021: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

It is good to see a trade union comrade in the Chair today. It is also nice to see the Minister, who is very welcome. I am moving the Second Stage reading of the Safe Access to Termination of Pregnancy Services Bill 2021. While Sinn Féin is very proud to be supporting this legislation, I want to begin by stressing the cross-party nature of the campaign behind this Bill. The Bill has been co-signed by members of Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, the Civil Engagement Group, the Green Party and Fianna Fáil, as well as by the father of the House, Senator David Norris. The Bill has been commissioned and drafted by Together for Safety, a national campaign group working for legislation that would enforce safe access zones around all family planning centres, maternity hospitals and healthcare facilities in Ireland that provide or give information on abortion. All credit for this legislation belongs to Together for Safety and its tireless campaigners across the country. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, they cannot be in the Seanad Chamber but I can assure the House that they will be watching proceedings closely and hoping that the Minister will allow this Bill to pass Second Stage in line with his own stated position on this issue and with the commitment given in the programme for Government.

Let me be very clear. We need this legislation without further delay because women and pregnant people are entitled to access essential healthcare including access to termination of pregnancy services in privacy and dignity without being subject to intimidation, harassment and the subtle but deliberate chill effect that anti-choice protesters are bringing to hospital, family planning and GP settings across the State right now.

Legislation was promised three and a half years ago but to date has not been delivered. Indeed, as recently as August, the Minister's Department issued a statement to the effect that there was no need for such a Bill. My colleague Senator Boylan will expand on the reasons we need this Bill, the tactics being employed by anti-choice protestors and the difference it will make not only for women and their partners but also for hospital staff, local residents, businesses and the vast majority of the public who have to endure these protests currently taking place outside of our maternity hospitals and family planning clinics.

The core aim of this Bill is to keep people safe and protect people's right to access healthcare with compassion. In the short time available to me, I will take Senators through the key provisions of this short Bill. The Bill was drafted by barrister Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair and constitutional law expert Dr. Jennifer Kavanagh. It aims to do three things: establish safe access zones, extend the law on harassment to protect anyone involved in the provision of abortion services and establish a civil right to damages.

Section 1 deals with definitions. Here I will highlight the definition of a designated premises as "any premises at which termination of services or contraceptive services are provided". Harassment has the meaning given to it in the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997.

Section 2 seeks to establish safe access zones around premises that provide abortion services and contraception services with a radius of 100 m around designated premises. There is nothing new about the idea of a safe access zone in Irish law. We already have safe zones as set out in the Electoral Act 1992 which established such zones of 100 m around polling stations. That was brought down to 50 m in the 2001 Act. No one has ever had a problem with the fact that someone is not allowed to run up to a polling station and make a political speech. There is nothing groundbreaking about this aspect of the Bill. The radius of 100 m mirrors the size set out in local authority legislation such as in Ealing, in our nearest neighbour state, and also existing legislation in parts of the US.

Section 3 sets out activities restricted in the safe access zone, that is, to express or demonstrate support for or opposition to a person's decision to access, provide or facilitate provision of termination of pregnancy services or contraceptive services, or to seek to influence a person's decision to access, provide or facilitate provision of termination of pregnancy services or contraceptive services or engage in any acts that any reasonable person would see as likely to achieve those aims. That is the core of the Bill. The point is that it is nobody else's business. This is accessing healthcare and people are entitled to privacy and dignity.

Section 3(2) sets out a list of the types of activities that would not be allowed within 100 m of a designated premises. They are well set out and quite specific. Sections 3(4), 3(5), 3(6) and 3(7) build in a number of important safeguards and exceptions to the rules as set out in the Bill.

Section 4 details the definition of harassment. It is an important aspect of the Bill that it extends the law of harassment to include people providing abortion and contraception services.

Finally, section 5 sets out a civil right to damages.

I want to say a few words on the right to protest. I feel passionately about this right. I have been protesting for the best part of four decades. I marched for the Birmingham Six as a teenager in London and against Ronald Reagan when he arrived in Shannon in 1984. I protested right the way through the austerity years. Now, I protest against the US military at Shannon as often as I can. I am a passionate protestor. This Bill does not prevent protests by those opposed to abortion. It simply means that those protestors will not be able to protest within 100 m of a maternity hospital. It balances the right to protest against the right to privacy of people accessing essential healthcare. I will put it simply. Everyone and their partners should be able to access compassionate care in privacy and dignity.

I wish to directly quote our colleagues in Together for Safety on this Bill:

The right to protest is core to our democracy and our lives as activists, however we want to also ensure the right to access healthcare in privacy, safety and with dignity. This Bill does that.

The right to religious freedom is key to our vision of Ireland as a diverse and inclusive modern country, however, people accessing healthcare find it upsetting, intimidating and distressing that anti-choice activities are occurring outside medical centres under the guise of prayer. We think there is a time and a place for such activities and want to find the balance to protect everyone's rights. This Bill does that.

We've been told that existing public order legislation is enough to deal with anti-choice protests and activities. However, we want to pre-empt anti-choice harassment and distress and keep people safe from it entirely. This Bill does that.

This is a well written Bill, and one that could make a real difference to thousands of women every year. There is a broad coalition behind this Bill, including people in the Minister's own party. We will listen carefully to his thoughts on the Bill, and if it passes Second Stage this evening, we will seek to work constructively with him to address any concerns he may have before moving to Committee Stage. I ask the Minister to commit to working with us. This is an opportunity to transcend narrow party politics and instead reach for the common good. Women have already waited too long for this issue to be addressed. Just today during the universal periodic review held by the United Nations, the Government's failure to address anti-abortion protests outside of medical centres was raised by no less than three different civil society organisations. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties said:

Ongoing anti-abortion protests outside healthcare providers aim to deter individuals from accessing healthcare and doctors from providing it. This can cause distress, exacerbate existing social stigmas and pose a serious risk to a range of rights.

I urge the Minister to support this Bill and send a powerful message from the State that it hears people's concerns and is not neutral when it comes to protecting people’s right to access essential healthcare in privacy and with dignity.

This is an incredibly important Bill that we are discussing tonight. I sincerely hope that it will be allowed to progress. I want to begin by commending the Together for Safety group which has tirelessly pursued the issue of safe access zones so that women can access the vital health services they are entitled to without harassment or fear. In response to constant anti-choice protests and activities outside the family planning clinic and maternity hospital in Limerick, Together for Safety was founded. It has meticulously documented the negative impact that anti-choice protests are having on people.

Abortion is legal in this country. That is the democratic decision taken by the people of Ireland in 2018. Repealing the eighth amendment sent out the very clear message that decisions taken by women regarding their bodies and healthcare are a matter for them and their doctors and nobody else. My colleague, Deputy Louise O'Reilly, in anticipation of protests submitted amendments to the original termination of pregnancy Bill and was given a firm commitment that if she withdrew the amendments, legislation would swiftly follow. Yet women still wait. Ministers have changed, elections have taken place and yet women still wait. All the while, protests continue. Even during the pandemic, protests continued. Together for Safety would have preferred for the Minister to have delivered on the commitment to bring forward the legislation but in the absence of such legislation and with the daily damage that is being done to women through these protests, it has come forward with its own legislation, which has been drafted by a constitutional legal expert, Dr. Jennifer Kavanagh, and barrister Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair.

The Bill is also endorsed by the following groups and individuals: the Abortion Rights Campaign, Ailbhe Smyth, Alliance for Choice, Amnesty Ireland, Clare ARC, Clare Women's Network, Disabled Women Ireland, Donegal ARC, Dr. Mary Favier of Doctors for Choice, Dublin Well Woman Centre, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Kerry for Choice, Leitrim ARC, Limerick Feminist Network, Limerick Women's Network, the National Women's Council of Ireland, the Northside Family Resource Centre, Offaly ARC, Rape Crisis Mid West, Rape Crisis Network of Ireland, Rebels for Choice, Safe Ireland, Sligo Asking for Angela, Tipperary for Choice and West Cork Rebels for Choice. It also enjoys the support of elected representatives in both Houses and from across the political spectrum. I would like to commend my colleague Senator Gavan, who is piloting its progress through the Oireachtas.

It is really important that we remember why this Bill is so essential. It is not about stopping the right to protest. As an activist who wears the badge of serial protester with pride, I have taken part in many protests here and internationally. I have been tear-gassed at protests and I led a high-profile campaign at European level for the release of imprisoned protesters in Egypt.

The right to protest goes to the core of my values, and it is the pillar of democracy. The right to protest, however, does not confer a right to a captive audience. As a country we have accepted this when it comes to polling stations. In fact, we accept that it is not appropriate for political badges and slogans to have any place where people go to cast their votes. Surely a person accessing healthcare should be afforded similar rights to those casting their votes?

Women have been treated with disrespect, distrust and disdain since the foundation of this State. Forcing them to run the gauntlet through protestors just so they can enter or leave a healthcare facilities is nothing more than a continuation of that treatment. That has a lasting impact and please do not take my word for it but listen to the women directly impacted who shared their stories with Together for Safety:

1. One of the young women from the protest group stood at the traffic lights opposite the maternity hospital. She asked if I had an appointment. I presumed that she was making small talk so I said, yes, I did. She told me that she and her friends were praying that no babies were murdered in the hospital that day and asked me why I was attending. I told her my visit was none of their business and they should move their protest to outside of Leinster House and leave people to access healthcare. They were still there when I got out. I went over to them and told them they should be ashamed of themselves. They ignored me and shouted a decade of the rosary at me.

2. I have left that hospital with my two bonny babies. I have also left it with nothing after a dilatation and curettage or D&C, and I exited through a side door with a wicker coffin in my arms. Passing the hospital stirs up a mixture of emotions. Since I have heard of these protesters I have gone out of my way to avoid walking past the hospital as they would have added to my grief and heartache. The women of Ireland deserve peace. It is 2021 and we have had enough.

3. I went to my doctor for a routine check-up and protestors were outside her surgery chanting something like stop abortions. I said it to my doctor and she said that she had called the guards but they were there every morning that week and were upsetting patients.

That is just a sample of the emotional turmoil that women are being put through on a daily basis. It is not just women accessing healthcare, however; it is the healthcare workers, doctors, nurses and administrative staff. Is it any wonder then that not every maternity hospital, and only one in ten GPs, offer abortion services even after we repealed the eighth amendment?

The protestors know what they are doing. They know the chilling effect that their protests are having. They know exactly what they are doing. This is not about religious freedom. This is about curtailing women's freedoms. Nobody has ever stopped an anti-choice protest taking place in public places. I have countless teenage memories, as does anybody who grew up in Dublin, of walking across O'Connell Street and being accosted and having graphic leaflets pushed into my face by people from groups like Youth Defence. I have walked passed similar protests on my way into this building and into the European Parliament. That is democracy and freedom of expression. I will defend the rights of everyone to exercise those rights even if I fundamentally disagree with them. However, I will not defend someone who has a right to access healthcare, including abortion services, having to go through distress, intimidation and emotion abuse in order to fulfil that right. This Bill seeks to strike a balance that protects everyone's rights. I hope that we can progress it tonight and that it will be allowed to move on to the next Stage.

I welcome the Minister and I call Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee to speak on behalf of Fianna Fáil.

I welcome the Minister. I am very happy to have the opportunity to express my commitment to safe access zones. I know that the Minister has a firm commitment to safe access zones.

As we all know, the commitment to safe access zones is contained in the programme for Government. My Government colleagues and I are very supportive of them. I am glad that Deputy Stephen Donnelly is our Minister for Health, particularly on foot of his ongoing and very real commitment to women's healthcare through the free contraception scheme, menopause clinics, endometriosis funding and period poverty and breastfeeding supports. I appreciate his active engagement on the review of the abortion legislation, which is approaching the three-year mark. I know that the Minister is personally committed to reproductive health and rights. It is very good that we all have the opportunity tonight to express our commitment to the expressed will of the Irish people.

As outlined, there is a broad coalition of support for safe access zones. I commend Together for Safety and the coalition of fantastic grassroots groups across the country that are responsible for the drafting of this legislation and making sure that this matter is kept high on the political agenda. It is that grassroots engagement, support and driving of legislative change that gave rise to the repeal of the eighth amendment. It is good to see that these groups are going from strength to strength supporting and encouraging legislative change.

Termination services have, thankfully, been legal in this country for almost three years. It is not acceptable that anybody should be intimidated while accessing health services. It is incredible that people feel they have the right to intimidate and provide an undignified space for people when they access services. Women and pregnant people should be able to access health services without experiencing intimidation, stigma or shame. We have had enough of that in this country to last a lifetime. People need to be able to access services in a private and safe fashion, and with dignity.

We can sometimes forget how far we have come. Recently, the anniversary of the death of Savita Halappanavar took place. We have made great strides since then but we have a way to go. We should always be conscious of how easy it is to slip back from that position.

My colleague, Senator Chambers, and I visited Poland recently. On behalf of the all-party group on sexual and reproductive health and rights, we signed the Warsaw commitment to freedom of expression in Europe, and to the access and support of people's sexual and reproductive rights. At the time, I was struck by the fact that the activists in Poland said to me that a case like Savita's was going to happen and, unfortunately, Izabella, a Polish woman got sepsis and died because of the situation there. I know that everybody here will think about Izabella tonight and about all of the sacrifices that Irish women, and women across Europe, have made to get the rights that we have now.

I am sure there will be many arguments in favour of freedom of expression tonight. I do not think any of these arguments hold weight. The people who seek to vindicate these rights just want to restrict and intimidate others. There is nothing about the freedom of expression. Down though the years, and before we had the debate on repealing the eighth amendment, people attempted to restrict me from expressing my views on this issue. It is those same people who are very concerned about freedom of expression now.

Protests are part of our psyche in Ireland. I am a prolific protester. I have protested with great gusto in the past, but I would never seek to protest outside a medical establishment. These protests are very far-reaching in their impact, not only on the people accessing termination services but also on everybody accessing health services within a particular establishment, the staff and the wider community.

There is significant evidence that large parts of this country do not have adequate termination services and that this is down to the level of protesting that has taken place in some areas. Such a situation is completely unacceptable. Vulnerable women are being impacted by the level of protest in some parts of the country.

I am very glad of the opportunity to discuss this matter and to air of our commitment to establishing safe access zones. We all want to improve the provision of health services. I am glad we can all work together on this issue.

I, too, welcome the Minister. I also acknowledge his constant availability and engagement with us.

It is only fair that I commend Sinn Féin colleagues on tabling the Bill. They have put this issue on our agenda. All of us are shocked at the carry-on around hospitals. Let us remember that 68% of the population voted to repeal the eighth amendment three years ago.

Termination of pregnancy services are now available in hospitals in this country but they are not available to the level they should be because medical people are threatened, intimidated and are afraid to provide them because of the backlash from ultra-right, dangerous, fascist groups who think it is appropriate and proper to protest outside hospitals and other healthcare settings. It is not appropriate and it is not good enough.

I am disappointed the Minister has not brought a Bill before this House to deal with this situation at this stage, as per the commitment in the programme for Government. The Government has been in place for more than a year now, this has been going on for the past year, and yet we do not have legislation from the Government to deal with this issue. If we achieve nothing else tonight, I hope the Minister brings legislation before this House. If the Sinn Féin Bill does progress, as we expect it will, people in this House will be put in an invidious position in terms of what they do because none of us can stand over what is going on outside healthcare settings in this country at the moment. It is morally reprehensible. It is wrong, abusive and disgraceful. We have seen how women have been treated by this State for decades and this is just another example of what this country is doing to women because we are not dealing with it. The fact the Government has not legislated for safe access to healthcare settings is an abuse of women. I applaud the Together for Safety group for highlighting these issues and telling the stories of the people who have been blackguarded outside hospitals in this country.

Does the Minister agree that this legislation is necessary in the first instance? I hope he does. Senator Clifford-Lee referenced comments the Minister has made and I take that in good faith, but I want a timeline from the Minister. When is he going to bring Government legislation before the House that we can vote on and deal with? There may very well be legal issues with the Sinn Féin Bill and, if that is so, let us deal with them. Alternatively, the Minister must bring his own Bill before the House, but either way this issue has to be addressed. We cannot have a situation where a woman in a crisis pregnancy or a difficult situation who is going for medical treatment is faced with a barrage of protests, is approached and asked what she is doing and what is the purpose of her visit. That is barbaric and I am sure the Minister agrees with me. It is not good enough and it cannot be allowed to continue. We in the Oireachtas must make sure it does not happen and I cannot understand why we have not done so already.

I want an explanation from the Minister as to why he has not brought legislation before the House to date. What is the reason for it? What is the rationale for not bringing legislation before the Houses of the Oireachtas to deal with a problem of which the Minister and everyone here is aware? This is an important Bill and I commend our Sinn Féin colleagues on bringing it to the House tonight and for putting this issue on the agenda. It is important this was done and it is critically important it is acted on.

The Minister is very welcome to the House. As I read through this Bill, I was reminded of Senator McDowell's Children (Amendment) Bill 2020 which passed into law in April 2021. That was a targeted Bill, urgently drafted to remedy an obviously unintended legal situation. There was a universally recognised need for that Bill by the public but such does not seem to be the case with this Bill. The calls for protest prohibition zones, which, let us call a spade a spade, is what they are, do not appear to be coming from the grassroots but almost exclusively from special interest and political advocacy groups. Indeed, the Bill itself was gifted to Senator Gavan by a faceless campaign group, Together for Safety. As legislators, we should be extra vigilant when it comes to outsourcing our constitutional duties to pop-up activists.

That is a totally unacceptable comment. It is disgraceful.

Of course, people should be able to visit healthcare buildings without harassment but the need for this Bill is certainly subject to scrutiny. The Department of Health has stated that protests outside healthcare facilities are limited and that where problems do arise, there is existing public order legislation in place to protect people accessing services, staff and local residents. Indeed, the Garda Commissioner said the same in a letter to the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris. He outlined that the introduction of protest prohibition zone legislation would be redundant because of the existence of current laws and the fact no incidents of criminality had been reported or observed. If the situation around access to healthcare facilities was akin to what we see in the United States, for example, with large-scale, organised, high-energy and confrontational protests, that would be handled using current public order legislation. The fact this does not occur demonstrates that what this Bill seeks to ban is small, peaceful groupings of individuals who gather to discuss alternatives to abortion with women who may be open to such or simply to engage in quiet prayer, as is their right. The fact the Bill explicitly mentions prayer as a "prohibited action" in section 3(2)(f) is astounding. It might be the first time a Bill has sought to criminalise the act of praying.

They are praying in women’s faces.

This Bill has been introduced by Sinn Féin, a party that sang the praises of Kevin Barry last week, a man who was executed with his rosary beads in his pocket. There is more than a whiff of anti-Christian sentiment-----

There is a big difference, in fairness-----

I did not interrupt you, Senator Conway.

You need to be interrupted.

I did not interrupt others. Where is free speech? If I cannot deliver my speech-----

Senator Conway, please allow Senator Keogan to continue without interruption.

Kevin Barry would have been pro-choice.

There is more than a whiff of anti-Christian sentiment about it and I wonder if the proponents of this Bill would be so quick to encroach on the faith practices of other major world religions.

The right to protest and assembly cannot be limited to what one wants. The law must treat all equally. The exemption for industrial action in this Bill makes a farce of it. Are Senators saying posters extolling the value of dignity for all human life are to be made illegal but placards, soapboxes and megaphones deployed in the same spot are to be celebrated if they are referring to wages, pensions or holidays? When these zones were being discussed in this House earlier this month, it was said, I think by the acting Leader, there is a very delicate balance to be struck between free speech and the freedom to demonstrate peacefully and we need to be very careful on that front.

The fundamental purpose of the law is to balance the rights of citizens where they come into conflict, and on that front this Bill utterly fails. The drafters of the Bill, whoever they may be, have no desire to recognise the rights of those with whom they disagree. It is a dangerous voice that tells us to use our power to restrict the rights and freedoms of our opponents and it leads us down an entirely anti-democratic road. It is certainly not a voice I expected to hear in this House. I will be voting against this Bill and I implore all of my colleagues who recognise and respect the right of people to voice their opinions in a free society without fear of persecution to do the same.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I will start by paying tribute to a woman we only know as Isabella who died because of the rollback on abortion provision in Poland as a result of a Supreme Court judgment, a woman whose name, like Savita, we should not know. From Texas to Poland, in between and worldwide, reproductive and abortion rights are contested and that is why this Bill is so important.

That is why this Bill is so important. Protests outside maternity hospitals or GP clinics are about creating a chill effect. That is the case in America where there were protests and in places like Ealing and Richmond that have safe-access zones. Despite an overwhelming repeal vote, just ten out of 19 maternity hospitals offer abortion services and just 10% of GPs. A total of 375 women still travelled for abortions in 2019. Women also travelled in 2020 and in 2021. All these issues must be addressed urgently in the repeal review. I am disappointed that the process has not yet commenced, although it is November.

I came to the House today to ask the Minister a very specific question and I want a very specific answer. This does not require legislation to pass, as the legislation has already been passed. I refer to Covid legislation and women travelling to access abortion services and being asked to have a PCR test or proof of a Covid test. When seeking terminations abroad, women are undergoing urgent, necessary and radical treatment and they should be exempt under the Covid regulations, which state that a person is exempted when returning to the State after travel to a state for an unavoidable, imperative and time-sensitive medical reason. It is clear in the regulations that abortion services are exempt, yet the Minister has not made a clear statement on it, either in response to parliamentary questions or queries from organisations that help women access abortions. Those travelling for access are expected to get a private PCR test coming back to Ireland if they are not vaccinated. This has to happen within a very specific timeframe in a private clinic. In most cases, the women underwent a surgical abortion as it was after 12 weeks. This adds to the stress and the costs of what is already a very difficult situation. Why is that happening and why has the Department refused to clearly state that access to abortion is a necessary, time-sensitive medical procedure for women travelling? Could the Minister make a clear statement in this House that accessing abortion abroad is an exempted medical procedure under the Act?

I want to start my contribution by recognising the tireless work of the Limerick-based group, Together for Safety. It is a very visible, open and transparent group of campaigners who have been fighting hard to get this issue back on the political agenda.

It is a grassroots organisation of activists who have spent their weekends, evenings and even break times in their work day to promote this issue. The organisation published a very comprehensive Bill and lobbied us all in advance of this debate in recent months. It is often a lonely station when doing this work. Many of us in the Chamber have been those foot soldiers before, but the group's dedication to it is immense and so impressive.

The Bill, as proposed by Senator Gavan, with cross-party support, is clear and straightforward, legislating to create protest exclusion zones within a defined radius of a facility where terminations of a pregnancy are to take place. It involves nothing more or less. In 2018, the people of Ireland voted overwhelmingly for a more compassionate country which respected the experience of women and pregnant people, and the clinical judgment of doctors, and enabled abortion care to be provided. Three years on, I am still overwhelmed at how strong the "Yes" vote was and by how much the people of Ireland wanted change to our restrictive, draconian abortion laws. As a country, we had enough of years of secrecy, shame, exile and isolation. We demanded that people be able to access reproductive healthcare in this country, and not have our shame shipped across the sea any longer. The Minister was a part of the campaign. I do not doubt his personal commitment to the issue, but he has an opportunity today to put that commitment into action and to follow up on promises that have been made about the legislation.

A vital part of the campaign was for people to be able to access this healthcare in a safe way, and that means not having to face harassment or intimidation. We were promised that legislation would be introduced on safe-access zones, yet three years on, it is still no dice. Dignity and privacy are two things every patient has a right to expect when attending a GP or hospital. It is a bare minimum, and we will not tolerate any less. As it is, abortion is one of the few services that patients already must worry about being provided by their GP. Only 10% of GPs nationally are providing abortion services at the moment. After people decide to avail of abortion, they should not have to face a crowd of people, some of whom they may know from their local area, standing outside their GP's office or hospital, casting judgment on them. This is not okay. This is not fair. I would go so far as to say that it would not be tolerated if it affected any other group of patients. We have a long and sad history in this country of judging and shaming people for their reproductive choices, and this is simply the newest manifestation of that. The protests are designed to deter people from accessing healthcare and to stop doctors from providing it.

The legislation is necessary, and I ask the Minister to put it at the top of his agenda. Safe-access zones were promised. We have let down women and pregnant people in this country for decades. We simply cannot do so anymore. We have more to do in the repeal review and I am sure many of us in this House will engage with the Minister on this review. His predecessor promised on multiple occasions to legislate for this, but he did not. The Minister has committed to this and yet we are still not there. I ask him to put this at the top of his agenda. This is such a necessary piece of legislation. I urge the Minister not to let another year roll by without this being put to bed.

The Minister is very welcome to the House. I am proud to be a co-sponsor of the Bill, along with my Civil Engagement Group colleagues. I commend Senator Gavan on introducing the Bill. I also commend Together for Safety on drafting this important legislation and its advocacy for the introduction of safe-access zones.

As the Minister well knows, following the 2018 referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, where two thirds of voters in Ireland voted for free, safe, legal and accessible abortion, there was a commitment to introduce safe-access zones to protect women and pregnant people from harassment while accessing reproductive healthcare. It has become abundantly clear since the referendum decision was legislated for, that women and pregnant people, as well as their healthcare providers, would require protection in law from harassment and intimidation. To grant this protection would not exceed any legislative standard, instead it would merely meet the standard that the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, promised, as Senator Hoey outlined.

Speaking at the time, Deputy Harris noted how much legislation is necessary to protect both users and staff from distress and harassment when accessing facilities. Despite that acknowledgement, safe-access zone legislation is still not in place and people continue to be harassed on a daily basis as they access health services to which they have a right.

Legislation on this issue was listed in the 2019 legislative programme and the programme for Government, as well as being listed in the 2021 summer and autumn legislative programmes. However, such legislation is yet to appear from the Government. Patients and medical staff have been forced to endure repeated harassment and intimidation when seeking or providing healthcare.

I fundamentally believe in the right to protest. However, a right to privacy is an implicit right in the Constitution, in particular in cases such as the ones we are discussing here. Anti-abortion activities are happening outside hospitals, clinics and GP surgeries across the country on almost a daily basis. These protests include chanting, name-calling and the use of seriously distressing images, as well as props such as small coffins and white crosses. These protests, if we can even call them that, show an utter disregard for the welfare of women and pregnant people, who are at some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives. They deserve our protection to ensure their privacy.

In its submission to the Universal Periodic Review, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, noted that ongoing anti-abortion protests outside healthcare providers aim to deter individuals from accessing healthcare and doctors from providing it. This can cause distress and exacerbate existing social stigmas and cause a serious risk to a range of rights. It is also totally unacceptable that healthcare providers would be subjected to harassment or intimidation in the course of their duties.

We know that access to abortion in Ireland is unequal across the country. I am concerned in particular about GPs in rural areas, as in many cases their family home is attached to their practice and if they face protests it provides a chilling effect on them providing services. Let us be clear; as long as abortion remains inaccessible in Ireland, we have failed to deliver on the mandate given by the public in 2018. This legislation is a concrete step towards realising the democratic mandate for free, safe, legal and local abortion.

I strongly urge the Government to support it.

At the outset of the Twenty-sixth Seanad, colleagues spoke of how this Seanad needed to be a space where ideas were listened to and implemented regardless of whether they came from the Government or Opposition. Women and pregnant people have waited long enough for an assurance that they can safely access reproductive healthcare. Simply saying that legislation is on the way is not good enough. We have before us legislation that is timely, that addresses this vital issue and that will ensure that women and pregnant people can safely access reproductive healthcare without intimidation or harassment. It is an emergency for people experiencing crisis pregnancies and for healthcare providers and we need to act now. I urge the Government to engage with the sponsors of this legislation so that it may be enacted urgently. We cannot have further delays in the realisation of rights for women and pregnant people. They have waited long enough.

I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Sinn Féin group for introducing this legislation and giving us an opportunity to discuss the issue. I commend Together For Safety on its work in putting this legislation together, bringing the issue to the floor of the House and making sure that we do not forget our obligations as legislators to deal with it.

Senator Clifford-Lee mentioned our recent trip to Poland on behalf of the all-party Oireachtas group on sexual and reproductive rights. It was a surreal experience. One almost forgets how fraught and difficult the campaign was in this country and how it lasted for 35 years. In some ways, Poland reminded me of what Ireland was like 20 years ago. That is how much it has regressed and how scary a place it is to campaign for such issues. Women spoke to us about being intimidated while they were peacefully protesting and the heavy-handed approach taken by law enforcement. They were concerned that someone would die as a result, which has happened since we returned to Ireland. The situation in Poland is worrying. In some ways, it was uplifting to be able to talk about the Irish experience of what we went through - the Citizens' Assembly, the cross-party Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, of which I was a member, and the people's vote in the referendum that provided for abortion services with a two thirds majority, which was a resounding yes vote. The response we received from parliamentarians in Poland was that ours was an uplifting and positive story from what was considered to be a predominantly Catholic and conservative country. We managed to turn the situation around even though it took a lengthy campaign.

We are on the next step now, though. We have abortion services, but we do not have full access across the board and there is a level of intimidation outside where services are being provided. Senator Keogan referenced some of my comments in this Chamber regarding the need for a balancing of rights. She is correct, in that I did say that, but it would have important to give my full comment because there was context to what I said. I believe that the enacting of legislation for safe access zones is the correct balance to strike. Whatever we do, we are always balancing rights. It is about striking the right balance. There are peaceful protests, but as Senator Black outlined, when people are standing outside a clinic or hospital holding a small coffin or white cross, it is intimidating. It is not there to reassure or be pleasant to an individual. Rather, it is intimidation. It is the right of every citizen to challenge the laws of this country and the policies of the Government. If people have issues with how we are doing things, they can protest outside Leinster House or the offices of policymakers and lawmakers. Do not protest at innocent citizens who are accessing services that are legal.

That is the wrong place to go. This is just my opinion and I appreciate that others will disagree.

This is an important matter. I know from speaking to the Minister about it numerous times that he is fully committed to delivering the legislation. I hope I am not taking liberties, but I believe we were under the impression that the legislation was further along before he took office. That impression was certainly given by the previous Minister. In reality, the current Minister was effectively starting from scratch when he entered office. To be fair, there has been much happening in the past year and a half in terms of the pandemic-----


-----and the Department has been extremely busy, but that is not to say that there is not full support for the legislation. It is in the process of being drafted, which is important. The situation would be very different if the legislation was not being advanced, but the Government is committed to doing so and will do it. That is important. Ultimately, it does not matter how we get there as long as we get there.

There is a sense of urgency around this matter. Senator Moynihan highlighted the challenges being experienced by women because of the lack of legislation of this type. It is important to acknowledge that there have been delays, but I wish to reassure not just Senators, but the public watching this debate, that there is a strong and genuine commitment to delivering safe access zones so that women and their partners and families do not have to deal with what they are currently dealing with. I am not suggesting that all people who have an issue with abortion services are engaging in intimidation, but when we ask ourselves what harassment and intimidation are, it comes down to the subjective view of the person who is experiencing it. The person protesting might feel that he or she is doing so peacefully and does not intend to intimidate, but what matters is how the person who is the subject of the protest feels. If that person feels intimidated, then it is intimidation. It is important that we look at it from the perspective of the person experiencing the intimidation. People in that position are already dealing with quite a lot. It is an emotional and vulnerable time and people have thought long and hard about it. The last thing they need is anyone questioning their judgment when they are already at that point.

The Seanad and the Lower House have debated the provision of services. Services are being provided and, for now, that debate has concluded. This legislation is about ensuring that we allow people to access those services in all parts of the country. We are yet to achieve full access across the country. There are particular difficulties in rural areas that we need to address. I believe that the situation will improve over time, particularly as the next generation of general practitioners enter general practice. I have no evidence to back that up - it is just my opinion.

I wish the Minister well in his work. He will have the support of the House in dealing with this matter. It is something to which he is firmly committed. I thank him for attending to listen to our debate.

At the ungodly hour of 9 a.m. last Sunday, I had my first experience of being a sideline mom at a match. I cheered on as six-year-olds played as they do, that being, not very well; but they did play. A woman beside me had a three-year-old child with her. My husband and I looked around. We thought that the little girl was gorgeous and said she was lovely. The mother told us not to judge her. I wondered what she meant, but the little girl was watching "Peppa Pig" on a phone. I told the woman there was no judgment and that we had all been that soldier.

We ended up having a conversation about the experience of being judged and the presumption of judgment. We related our experiences as new mothers of people coming up to us, commenting if we were not breastfeeding or about the clothes our children were wearing and saying the things people think they are entitled to say to others. They put their own opinions and judgments out there without any consideration for others or respect for their autonomy.

That sense of entitlement to comment becomes an aggressive entitlement when one is standing outside a service that any woman is legally entitled to get, that is, walking into a GP's practice or maternity hospital to access termination services. How dare anyone decide that he or she can go up and pray into a woman's face, shout rosaries at her and hold up obscene photographs to try to shock and shame her? The generations which shamed women are over. That ended when we voted. As a society, we made a democratic decision to permit terminations. We had a mature debate and it took us a long time to get to the table and make the decision, but we did. Therefore, anyone who has the right to access that service legally also has the right to do so without being coerced or told what choices they should make with their bodies, what services they should access and how they should think by those who are doing so based on their own morality rather than on the medical ethics and entitlements that obtain in our State. The idea of the right to protest is a Trojan horse for intimidation and coercion.

That is all it is. It is using our civic right to protest. People should do so outside the Dáil, constituency offices, political party headquarters or appropriate places and zones.

An appropriate zone is not the one a woman needs to go through to access a service when she is already vulnerable and in a position where she needs to be given the freedom to go. Those protestors will not be there after they have coerced and intimidated women to have to go abroad because the service is not available in rural Ireland or not to go at all. They will not be there to pick up the pieces; they never were and they still are not. They are still not paying the bills for the intimidation and control of women over generations in this State. They are still not coughing up the money for that and there is no sign of them coming forward over the mother and baby homes either. How dare anybody decide on the right of bodily integrity for any woman in this State. We have passed that point and we are a mature nation that allows women to decide on their bodily integrity and autonomy. How dare we interfere with that right.

I congratulate Senator Gavan and the Sinn Féin group on bringing this Bill and I congratulate those who signed and supported it. This gives us the opportunity to have the debate, air our positions, agitate for the legislation to be brought forward, consider whatever legislation is still there and how that needs to be enhanced and all of that. That is very important. We have had enough of telling people what to do. At the point where they are crossing that threshold, they need to be left their privacy and the right to attend their doctor, as does everybody else who is attending that doctor. I have seen the protests outside the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street and the clinics in Goatstown. It is an obscenity and coercion and it should not happen. Shame on anyone who thinks he or she has a right to intimidate up that close with such graphic props like photographs and white coffins. I have been one of those women who has crossed that threshold and gone in with my baby's heart no longer beating for a dilation and curettage procedure. I would not want to come out and see white coffins; it is shameful.

I support the Bill and I know the Minister will be bringing forward legislation quickly. It is important we do so now. We need to protect and support the women and we also need to support the practitioners around the country who would wish to provide the service and who currently feel disabled from doing so. That time is over.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I will pay attention to his response and to the other speakers after me, although unfortunately I cannot be here for the remainder of the debate because of another commitment. I am not just here to defend the right to protest in a range of circumstances but I am also here to defend decent people who want to save lives. Listening to Senator Seery Kearney, I was thinking of an organisation I am aware of and support called Community Connect, which reaches out and in practical ways supports women who find themselves experiencing difficulty during pregnancy. It is also there for women who might regret their abortions and who need other kinds of support, without ever judging anybody because none of us ever has the right to judge anybody else. It is entirely legitimate and worthy to seek to save lives and to affirm the lives of both women and their unborn babies, and that will continue.

This legislation is not constitutional and it is not legally necessary as there is legislation in place to prosecute and punish anybody who would intimidate or harass people. The Garda Commissioner has said as much not too long ago. The reality is that because of the nature of abortion in this country, we do not have abortion clinics per se as there are in other countries, so there is not that direct recognisability between people who want to witness to the dignity of the unborn life and to posit alternatives to abortion and people who are going into hospitals or clinics for a range of different reasons. I am afraid this legislation ultimately seeks to demonise people who want to offer positive alternatives to abortion. It is an attempt to deny there is a legitimate human rights argument in favour of protecting the unborn baby as well as a mother's health and well-being. That counter narrative will always be there as long as abortion is legal in this country.

This legislation is about driving the abortion agenda forward, lest it go backwards, as people wonder about the fact we have an increased number of abortions, with more than 13,000 lives lost since the legislation came in. That is an increase of between 40% and 75%, depending on how one calculates it, on the rate of abortions that would have been taking place, judging by the figures the Government supplied prior to the 2018 referendum. There are questions about the failure to guarantee precautionary pain relief where terminations of pregnancy take place in late pregnancy. There is also a refusal to provide that women would be offered an ultrasound as part of the counselling that is available. All of these things could, in a non-coercive and non-deceptive way, offer people real and positive alternatives to abortion in an attempt to save lives and continue to support women. However, all this is to be denied because there is a desire, not just to nail down abortion services and ensure they expand and continue, but to deprive those who would try in any way to offer an alternative point of view or an alternative source of hope and healing.

As I have said, this Bill is clearly unconstitutional and its sponsors and the Government know it. That is the simple reason that three years have passed since this legislation was promised and it has not appeared. The Department of Health has produced thousands of pages of legislation, statutory instruments and guidelines in the past three years but we are expected to believe that in that time it could not produce a simple two-page and five-section Bill on this topic, rolling the issue on and on. The simple reason for it being stalled is that the Government and the current and former Attorneys General cannot square this proposal with the constitutional right to freedom of assembly, which it clearly breaches. The Government cannot admit this because it has politically sold its soul to pro-abortion groups and NGOs, which it funds and which want this legislation. The Government is terrified of a backlash from them.

The Minister seemed to indicate in a series of responses to questions from Deputy Cairns in the Dáil before the summer that the plan to legislate had been abandoned. There was an outcry by groups against that and the Minister dutifully got back into line and repeated the three-year commitment. With the greatest of respect, that political approach and discrediting of what our Constitution requires brings our legislative process into disrepute. Article 40 of the Constitution "guarantees liberty for the exercise ... subject to public order and morality ... of the citizens to assemble". This Bill would target the constitutional freedom of assembly of a specific group of people. We heard Senator McDowell today in another debate talking about how the Supreme Court struck down legislation on the basis it targeted a specific group of people and did not apply generally. This legislation would do the exact same thing and target a specific set of venues, namely, the ten hospitals which provide abortion services. None of this is permissible under the Constitution because everybody has the right to assemble peacefully and make their point.

Members have talked about Poland. Poland and places in America are the reason abortion proponents are worried because people there are starting to think about the humanity of the unborn. No woman could or should lose her life as a result of the legislation in Poland, which has a clear life-saving provision. I saw this with the tragedy of the Savita Halappanavar case as well. People tried to make the claim it was about Irish law, which clearly contained protections for women, but because of a misadventure in a hospital it gained political impetus. We have heard nothing about the tragedy of what happened to baby Christopher in the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street. What about the fact the law which was crafted and voted for by many Members here led to a misdiagnosis and the loss of a child's life? Will the politicians who campaigned for that extreme abortion law take responsibility for the loss of that child's life? That was a consequence of an overly permissive law and one hears nothing about it.

When the 1983 referendum was passed, the third of the population who were on the losing side were never denied their access to the airwaves and they were never denied their voices being heard.

It seems, however, as though the one third of people in this country who expressed their belief that the unborn deserve to be protected, in addition to the mother, are expected to go under a rock, disappear from the airwaves and are not allowed to express their views respectfully and in public. That is what is going on here. That is not good for our democracy or for mothers and their unborn children. I hope it will stop.

This a very important debate and I commend Senator Gavan, his colleagues and the other signatories to the motion. There is something déjà vu-like about speaking immediately after Senator Mullen and disagreeing with him. I do not know if I have the stomach for much more of this at my age because I tend to agree with the Senator on virtually every other standpoint that we share.

Three years ago, the Irish people went to the polls and made an emphatic decision. I thought that decision was settled for the remainder of my political lifetime. I regret we have to debate the issue again so soon. I only hope that it will not give rise to the emotional extremism we always experience when we debate something to do with abortion. I just hope the debate will be civil and carefully worded. I played a part in that last campaign along with Senator Chambers. I was on the Oireachtas committee that brought forth the wording of the motion that was put to the people. That is why I am in the Chamber tonight because it has had consequences. To paraphrase my fellow county-man, The Ó Rahilly, if you are going to wind the clock, you had better be prepared to hear it strike.

There is no shortage of free speech in this country, thanks be to God. There is total freedom of expression in this country. Do the people who are on the street shouting, megaphoning and all the rest of it, ever appreciate that those freedoms do not obtain in countries such as Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea and now, apparently, Nicaragua, sadly? I often wonder if people take it for granted that we have the right to express ourselves like that, which we do. The movement towards people power has a good history in this country. It was Daniel O'Connell, all those years ago, who called monster meetings and managed to put major pressure on the Tory government of the time. It was very effective. We paid tribute this morning, rightly so, to the late Austin Currie. He, John Hume, Seamus Mallon and all those other great people in the early civil rights movement in the North effected major change by bringing people out onto the street and through people power. As I said, they did not have to shoot or kill anybody in doing so.

Free speech is available in this country. The right to protest is important, once it is not abused. We sometimes see it abused, most remarkably in the terrible way the then Tánaiste, Joan Burton, was blaggarded in Jobstown by an absolute mob, when she and her young female assistant were locked into their cars for a number of hours. It was a horrendous thing, especially for anybody like me who suffers from claustrophobia. The right to protest can be abused. We have seen that on television at night with different protests.

While it may not be as extreme an instance as the one I referenced, what is going on at the hospitals is very regrettable and has to stop. I speak for myself, but if I am going into hospital, even for a routine procedure, I am not a happy camper. I am nervous, worried about getting injections, what the pain level will be like and, maybe, what will show up. Imagine going into hospital, having come to what is probably the biggest life decision a person will ever make, which is something as important as terminating a pregnancy. I just cannot imagine what it must be like for those individuals, having come to that decision, I am sure in consideration with their partners and so on, to then have to run the gauntlet of people who are, in their view, morally educating them on the rights or wrongs of their decision. Protest and free speech are important. It is great that we have them in Ireland, but they have been both well used and abused. I believe this is an abuse.

I am sharing my time with Senator Ó Donnghaile.

I commend those who have drafted the Bill. Together for Safety was set up by a group of women in Limerick in response to protests at their local maternity hospital. Members of this group are not faceless. NGOs and civic society groups play an important role in our democracy. On this narrative of a policy capture, people have campaigned on social issues for decades in this country and now, all of a sudden, there is a policy capture when we start to make progress and the empathy of the Irish people becomes clear and is allowed to flourish. I commend the broad coalition of people who have backed the Bill, from all parties and none, and those who co-signed it. I commend my colleague and comrade, Senator Gavan, on all his work in making the case and ensuring that we in Sinn Féin use our time to debate this Bill.

During the debate, it struck me that at pride protests, when we are busy sharing our love with the city, we pass counter-protests telling us to repent and so on. I have never once taken issue with those people. I am too busy sharing my love with the city to take issue with people calling on me to repent, but I have a real issue with the ability of people to access healthcare in their local community, which the Irish people voted for, being prevented and interfered with. I also have a real issue with women being distressed, stressed out and traumatised by people when they access services. These protests have a chilling effect on the provision of services. All we are asking for, if protests take place, is they do so from 100 m away. That is the size of a football pitch. We are not infringing on people's right to protest. As political activists, protest is a core tenet of our democracy for all of us. I add my voice to the support for the Bill.

On the other recommendations of the Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, I commend the Minister on the allocation of funding for contraception for women and girls aged between 17 and 25. Is there any chance this can be rolled out before August 2022? Is it the Minister's hope, in future budgets, that this will be available to all women and girls who ask for and need it?

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir Gavan agus le Le Chéile don Sábháilteacht, atá lonnaithe i Luimneach, as an Bille seo a chur le chéile dúinn. I do not have a great deal more to say beyond what my colleagues arguing for this Bill have had to say thus far. They have made a compelling case and some have reflected on their own personal experiences. I am very conscious of that. I thank them for sharing those experiences and stories because it gets to the real crux of why this legislation is, unfortunately, required.

At the heart of this is keeping people who are pregnant and who are accessing healthcare safe. Sin é. That is what it seeks to do. No one is seeking that diminish the right to protest. I will defend that right with every fibre of my being. However, as colleagues have said, some people are taking a protest deliberately to a place where vulnerable people are trying to access healthcare in private pertaining to their own personal medical requirements and their own lives. Why would these protesters do that? Why would they even want to do that? What would drive them to go and stand outside a healthcare provider, sooner than standing outside the gates of Leinster House, which is the far more appropriate location, in my opinion?

I want to take issue briefly with some of what was said earlier on about the Together for Safety organisation. If one goes on their Facebook page, which is open and public, it becomes apparent fairly quickly that they are not faceless. They stand proudly in public. They have had their photos taken launching this Bill, appropriately again, outside the gates of this building. I was here in the last Seanad, in the run up to the repeal legislation. Believe me, I had lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of anonymous and, at times, extreme correspondence sent to me. I know faceless organisations and faceless lobby campaign groups when I see them. Together for Safety does not meet that description.

I also welcome the fact that this Bill, which will hopefully pass tonight, comes on the back of a similar Bill that passed on Second Stage in the Assembly in the North. This is an all-Ireland issue. Women's healthcare and healthcare more generally is an all-Ireland issue. It is important that we approach it in that regard. Until all of these designated zones are safe and all of these healthcare providers and facilities are safe, unfortunately the tragic reality is none of them will be safe. We have to ensure we work collaboratively and together to ensure access to healthcare is safe throughout the Thirty-two Counties.

Le bheith ionraic, is é sin mo mhéid ar an díospóireacht seo. I think colleagues have articulated the rationale for this legislation well. I understand and appreciate fully that there are differences of opinion in this House and indeed outside it. However, I hope that none of us is approaching or will approach each other with any hostility or any thought of intimidation. We value the fact that we have different opinions and are allowed to express them here peacefully, democratically and in the full knowledge that we will not be subject to that kind of intimidation or threat. I hope we can get to the point where women and people who are accessing healthcare are able to be as confident and assured in their safety when accessing it.

I thank the Senator. As there are no other speakers, I call the Minister to make his statement.

Nobody should be harassed, insulted, intimidated or interfered with in any way when accessing healthcare services in our country or anywhere else. That applies absolutely to pregnant women who are accessing termination of pregnancy services. I welcome the publication of the Safe Access to Termination of Pregnancy Services Bill 2021. I would like to begin by thanking the Senators involved for their work on it. Their commitment - and indeed the commitment in most parts of the House, based on tonight's debate - to highlighting this issue has been significant. It should be applauded and commended. I would like to thank and pay tribute to Together for Safety and the many voluntary groups around the country that are working and advocating on this issue. I would also like to restate my commitment to ensuring we provide safe access to termination of pregnancy services. I assure Senators and the House that the issue is a priority for me as Minister and for this Government.

It is important to recognise that the Senators supporting this Bill this evening and the Government are in the same place on this issue. This is a lawful service, which the majority of people in this country voted in 2018 to allow. Nothing should get in the way of that service being accessible. We all want to protect the people who need access to termination of pregnancy and our healthcare staff who work to provide these services. None of us wants to see these violent and intimidating protests outside our hospitals or our GP practices. None of us wants our service providers and our patients to be intimidated or to be fearful. I would like to take a moment to thank all of the practitioners who have worked through the pandemic to ensure these services continue to be provided without interruption.

I am fully supportive of the spirit and the intent of the Bill being debated this evening. I do not intend to oppose it. However, there are legal concerns about the provisions of the Bill, as currently drafted. I am advised that it could cause significant legal difficulties and may have unintended consequences for the operation of existing public order legislation. For the reasons I have covered, I will not be opposing this Bill. However, in order to ensure the quickest and most legally robust route to achieving our aims, I plan to have proposals for safe access on the legislative programme very soon - indeed, in the coming spring session. That would mean that the heads of the Bill would be produced. I will bring them to the Government. If I succeed in a Government decision, which I would hope to do because it is in the programme for Government, we will bring that to the committee for prelegislative scrutiny. Then all of us in the Oireachtas can work together to move the Bill through the legislative process and into law as quickly as possible. It was in September of this year that I listed this legislation for priority drafting by my Department. I hope we will have support for it. While the legislation we intend to bring forward in the spring will not have the support of everyone, I hope it will have the support of the Senators who are supporting this Bill this evening. Obviously, we should have a good and thorough debate and examination of that Bill when it is introduced.

As Senators will be aware, it was originally hoped to include provisions on safe access to services in the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018. However, the Department advised at that time that some complex legal and policy issues had been identified which necessitated further consideration. Prime among these are the constitutional and human rights issues which could be infringed upon should peaceful protest be prohibited. Freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion are fundamental rights in a democratic society. They are fundamental rights in our society. We have significant human rights commitments and obligations, both domestically in the Constitution and of course internationally. This means that there is a delicate balance to be struck in devising new legislative provisions to curtail rights in this area.

Given the delicate balance that needs to be struck, my officials are currently drafting legislative proposals and consulting other Government Departments and An Garda Síochána to find the best way to provide for safe access. I want this to be expedited and I have made this clear to my officials. I have also had discussions on the matter with the Attorney General. I want to assure the House again that it is my intention to introduce legislative measures as soon as possible. While I do not oppose the Bill before us, and indeed I support its spirit and intent, I have been advised of some concerns. I would like to cover them briefly now. They are being addressed through the drafting process in the Department.

First, the definition of “designated premises” set out in section 1 of the Bill suggests that 100 m safe access zones would apply to all premises that provide termination of pregnancy services, as well those providing or advising on contraception services.

Within the 100 m zones no protest either for or against termination of pregnancy or, indeed, contraceptive services, would be permitted. It is a very broad definition. It would cover GPs, family planning clinics, primary healthcare centres and hospitals. It would also apply to pharmacies as they commonly dispense contraception and provide advice in regard to contraception. It might also extend to other premises which sell, supply or give advice about contraception, such as student unions, welfare offices and schools. It has even been suggested it would cover pubs which have condom vending machines in their toilets. Given the number of such premises in any given town or city, the application of a 100 m zone would have a serious impact on the ability of anyone to hold a protest for or against termination of pregnancy in any location without the risk of inadvertently committing an offence.

The establishment of 100 m safe access zones around all premises that provide termination of pregnancy and-or contraceptive services also presents a legal frailty in the Bill, as there is no public list of sites where these services are provided. This means that a person could argue that as the State has not confirmed which sites provide such services, that person cannot reasonably be on notice of how he, or she, may be breaching the law, which is a key requirement of criminal law. The HSE My Options programme holds a list of termination of pregnancy service providers who have agreed to share their details with patients seeking to access services. However, inclusion on the list is voluntary and many providers prefer not to be listed, and for some of the reasons we have heard debated this evening. The creation of a publicly available list is likely to deter some practitioners from providing services or cause other practitioners to withdraw the provision of services. It is essential that we develop a culture where termination of pregnancy services are accepted as part of standard healthcare provision so that that woman can access termination services across the community and hospital sectors.

There is concern that there are no enforcement powers included in the Bill. For example, it does not provide powers for An Garda Síochána to direct people to immediately leave the area or to arrest any person failing to comply with such a direction. This would have serious implications for the implementation and enforcement of the legislation by An Garda Síochána.

Since the commencement of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 in January 2019, termination of pregnancy services have become established and have become part of the Irish healthcare system in line with Government policy. However, we are all aware of reports of protests which have caused real distress to those accessing and providing services. We heard some very important and powerful testimony this evening from Senators with regard to women who have been affected in very serious ways in this regard. These are a cause of concern. They are completely unacceptable. Nobody should be blocked or denied safe access to lawfully provided services and no healthcare provider should have to deal with this intimidation.

I am committed to ensuring that anyone needing a termination of pregnancy can access services in safety. As I said, this is a priority for me and I intend to introduce the necessary legislation in the next Oireachtas spring session, that is, January to March 2022. It is important that such legislative provisions are implementable and enforceable, that they will stand up to any legal challenges that might be brought against them and that they do not cause any unintended consequences for existing public order laws.

I want to assure the House that my officials are currently working hard to find the best, most robust way to provide for safe access. My Department is also continuing to work with the HSE to ensure that all women in Ireland can access this service quickly and easily, without bias or judgment. We want to continue to provide a compassionate and dignified termination of pregnancy service. The most important thing is that women accessing this service can do so with certainty of the quality and safety of the care they will receive.

Our country has fallen far short of its obligations to women for a very long time. That applies in healthcare as much as in any other sector. As I have said previously, we do not need marginal improvement in women's healthcare, we do not need things to get a little better one year at a time, we need a revolution in women's healthcare. That means better services, more choice and more services. This applies in respect of maternity, gynaecology, fertility, menopause, contraception, mental health, endometriosis and much more. We will be launching a women's health action plan next year, which will cover these areas. We got off to a good start this year. We need to do more as quickly as we can. It also means safe access for women to these services. That is what this Bill is about. It is what this debate is about. It is a priority for so many people who have spoken tonight and for so many people who are watching this evening's proceedings. I want to assure Senators that we will be debating a Bill in the spring session, which, I hope, we can pass as quickly as possible through the full legislative process and provide the safety that is required.

I thank all contributors to the debate. It has been, for the most part, a reasoned and powerful debate. I am struck by the personal testimony of a couple of speakers in particular. I thank them for their courage in speaking out so strongly this evening.

In the five minutes available to me, I will try to deal with a couple of the points raised. I will start with the unfortunate reference to my friends and colleagues in Together for Safety as a faceless campaign group. I have known these fantastic campaigners for many years. We soldiered together through the referendum on repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. They are some of the most inspirational people I have ever worked with. They have built a nationwide campaign on the back of a courageous call to stand up for women's rights and to fight to equality. I am very proud to be associated with them. They are far from faceless. As mentioned by my colleague, Senator Ó Donnghaile, they were outside the gates of Leinster House a few weeks ago. They are the among the finest people I have ever worked with. It is disappointing to hear that type of reference made in this House. It is clear the Senator concerned simply does not know anything about the group. That type of comment is unacceptable.

I would like to raise with the Minister the very important point made by my colleague, Senator Moynihan, with regard to abortion being covered as an emergency medical treatment for the purpose of travelling. That is an important issue. The Minister did not respond to Senator Moynihan on that point. I accept that he had a number of points to cover and that he might not have had an opportunity to respond to Senator Moynihan, but I am happy to give way to him if he would like to respond on that point now.

I will need to consult and come back to the Senator on it.

Fair enough, but please do because it is an important point. A number of Senators referenced the backdrop to what we are experiencing here. I want to speak openly. As Senator O'Sullivan and others will be aware, I was also a member of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. It was a wonderful moment when we achieved repeal but, to a degree, I feel cheated because we have not seen the implementation of repeal in the manner it should have been implemented. As referenced, only one in ten GPs provides services. We know that almost half of all maternity hospitals do not provide termination services. There is a direct link to the chilling protests and subtle coercion, sometimes not all subtle coercion, that is being practised by these campaigners. I would make the point, respectfully, to the Minister that we can do something about it, and we should do that. There is a lot of work to be undertaken but if we could take this step in terms of engaging with this Bill to move it forward and to establish safe access zones that would be a great job of work. Hopefully, the Minister will acknowledge that all of us have tried to do this on a non-party political basis here this evening. We are trying to do what is right. We are trying to reach for the common ground. The Minister asked if we would work him in regard to his Bill. Absolutely, we will do so.

However, we do not have that Bill at the moment. I ask the Minister to work with us on the Bill before the House. I appreciate that he has made some constructive comments in regard to the Bill. I am the first to admit it is not perfect, but it has been well drafted. In terms of the issues raised by the Minister, we should constructively engage on them. Will the Minister engage with us? I propose to write to the Minister tomorrow requesting a meeting with him and his officials where we can go through this Bill drafted by Together for Safety and, if necessary, amend it and make it practicable.

The people watching at home will wonder why it has to be a Government Bill. We have spoken previously about how the Seanad can work collectively and this is probably the best opportunity we will have this year to do so. I say to the Minister, respectfully, let us work together with this Bill. While we would work very constructively with a Government Bill, to be frank we do not have one from him just yet but we do have this Bill and women have already been left waiting too long. Again, I reference the harrowing testimony detailed by Senator Boylan. I wonder if some of the speakers in this debate did not listen to that because it made it very clear that something very wrong is happening outside our maternity hospitals right now. There is something deeply wrong happening. I was very struck by Senator Seery Kearney's point about being judged. That is what is happening but it should not be happening outside our hospitals.

The constitutional balance to which the Minister refers is, of course, important but as I referenced, we have safe zones in this country around our polling stations and no-one has ever had an issue with them. The possibility exists to make progress on this Bill and I ask the Minister to work with us. We will work with him but this Bill is live here this evening. It is on Second Stage and with his support, it will pass Second Stage. We want to get it to Committee Stage, to engage with the Minister on it and make it better and stronger. Above all, we want to act in defence of women and pregnant people, and put an end to this nonsense, this poison, that is outside our hospitals at the moment. Let us show the people watching that we can do this.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 16 November 2021.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.52 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 11 November 2021.