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.