Thursday, 13 July 2023
Health (Termination of Pregnancy Services) (Safe Access Zones) Bill 2023: Second Stage (Resumed)
I am glad to the see the Minister here. I thank him for his work on this. This is an important piece of legislation and incredibly welcome. I also thank Together for Safety, which has been absolutely outstanding. I thank Karen and Yvie in particular, along with all its other members. Their lobbying has been incredibly effective. It is part of the reason we are here, and we would be foolish to not acknowledge that. I also acknowledge my colleague, Senator Gavan, who along with others sponsored legislation similar to this in the Seanad. While it did not pass, it had the effect of keeping the subject on people's agenda and to the forefront of minds.
I doubt I will take all my time, but I did not want to let the opportunity pass without saying a few words about why we are here. We are really here because we did not do our job in 2018. This should have been part of the legislation in 2018. I deeply regret that I did not push it harder at the time. I have said this before. We all got correspondence from the National Women's Council urging us to pass the legislation, acknowledging the safe access zones were not part of it, but saying we needed to rush. I believe the council was wrong. I deeply regret that I gave in to that pressure, because we should have done it at the same time. I apologise to every person who has had to pass by these people, who are attempting to intimidate or harass them, because we let them down. We should have been stronger. We should have stood up to the lobby and if it had taken even a small amount of extra time we should have done it. That said, it is very welcome we have this legislation and we are going to have that protection because, despite what others might like to say, abortion is healthcare and it is utterly ludicrous to think a person could actively try to prevent another person from accessing healthcare that is lawful. People who need healthcare should have access to it.
We talk a lot, and could talk all day, about the need to improve access to healthcare and there are a range of reasons people cannot access the healthcare, including the postcode lottery and all that, but in truth for this healthcare - for abortion care - there are very specific reasons and very specific actors who try to stand between the people who need this care and the hospitals and facilities that can deliver it. It is right that we have this legislation. It is not preventing people from doing something and is instead a form of protection for people who are accessing healthcare. I pass them. They are not there every morning. I drive rarely, but when I do, I pass them at Holles Street. I know many people who work in that hospital and in others and they will tell you it is not just intimidating for the patients but also for the staff. They consider it harassment. It is designed to make people feel uncomfortable. It is not designed to make people think again because by the time you are there you have made up your mind. We know our own minds. Everybody said “Trust women”, so trust us. It is not designed to do anything other than have a chilling effect on healthcare professionals and to intimidate patients who need healthcare. It is therefore very welcome this legislation is here.
If we are talking about access we need to talk about other impediments to healthcare. There is the postcode lottery. Like other Deputies, I am hopeful this protection might lift some of the chilling effect such that we might see a more even spread. That would be very welcome. The three-day wait also has an impact. It is an impediment to people accessing healthcare. No doctor looked for it to be put in and no lawyer looked for it to be put in; it was a political construct. It was put in at that time. The Minister will remember, as I do, that nobody asked the eighth amendment committee to put this in and it was not in any report. It was stuck in at the last minute. When we talk about access we need to talk about eliminating all barriers.
I conclude by again thanking Together for Safety and thanking the Minister for bringing this legislation through. When this is through we need to look at other impediments to accessing abortion care.
I agree with Deputy O'Reilly on everything. It is a strong signal the Minister is here on the last sitting day to deal with this important legislation. We are talking about abortion and termination services, but we are really talking about health services and ensuring people have unhindered access to what are lawful health services and do not have to deal with harassment and intimidation. It is as simple as that. We are talking about hospitals, clinics and healthcare settings. None of that is acceptable. This does not take away from people's right to protest and all those other particular issues, but this is about healthcare staff who can be intimidated in their place of work or on their way there. This is also about women seeking to access services. We do not necessarily know the circumstances people are dealing with. It is up to them. Nobody needs to be dealing with this level of harassment and intimidation. It does not serve any purpose.
It is a pity and we should have been here at an earlier stage. It is not the first time anyone has ever said that about legislation. We are in the right place and we just need to move it on. Deputy Costello spoke about gardaí needing specific legislation and that they need to know what charges someone is going to be held on if they are carrying out acts we are looking to make illegal. An issue raised during pre-legislative scrutiny was recording the warnings. People can get multiple warnings at different locations. We need to clean up that piece so we can produce something that has the impact we want it to.
I also thank Together for Safety for a really powerful piece of advocacy work. I thank Senator Gavan who worked alongside many other progressive forces in moving his legislation through and now, finally, we have this.
The geographic barriers to services have been mentioned by nearly everyone who has spoken. There are wider issues with health services across the board. We all talk of workforce planning, but the difficulty with consultants and so on is it takes a number of years to bring that to fruition. However, across the board I think everyone accepts we must get into the world of doing the geospatial planning piece that is required when looking at where there are gaps and disparities in services or where they do not exist. We should also produce extra route maps through the education system and all the rest of it to allow us furnish all the health carers who are required so we can provide people with the services they demand.
This is definitely useful legislation. There will be a need, which I am sure amendments and whatever else will be able to deal with, to ensure we can be certain people have safe and unhindered access to what are lawful services. It is a piece of the jigsaw we have not put together. We owe this to women, to wider society and we need to do it. We need the optimum legislation to deliver the optimum services, while looking at where we have gaps in services and whatever can be done to remedy that.
I thank all Deputies who have contributed to this debate. There are legitimately-held and deeply-held views on this issue and we must listen to each other and do so carefully and respectfully. Ultimately, it is important we do what is right by women in protecting both them and the service providers in accessing healthcare.
That is what this is about. In July of last year, the Government approved draft legislation to ensure safe access to premises at which termination services are provided, or may be provided. Since that time, my Department has worked with stakeholders to draft the text of the Bill that is before us now. The Bill will allow patients, service providers, healthcare staff and members of the public to enter and leave premises without fear of intimidation or harassment. It will promote dignity and autonomy of individual decisions in relation to healthcare matters and protect them from unsolicited influence.
As we conclude the Second Stage debate on the Bill here today and move on to Committee Stage, I assure colleagues that I have listened very carefully. I have been at all three of the sessions to listen to the views held. It has been a very respectful debate. I am mindful that some of the concerns raised around certain aspects of the legislation on both sides of this exchange are ones that people want to be looked at and I assure colleagues that I am here to listen. We will reflect on this.
Officials from my Department have engaged extensively with the Office of the Attorney General and other stakeholders through the drafting of the Bill so that the legislation was considered carefully. We will now review the issues raised in the course of this debate and we will re-engage where that is necessary and where it is appropriate. I very much look forward to discussing these issues on Committee Stage.
I want to reiterate that this is a complex area of law, as many colleagues have said, regardless of one's view on termination services. We are balancing competing constitutional rights. We have rightfully heard from many contributors to the debate that it is vitally important that women can access lawfully available services without fear, harassment or intimidation, and that healthcare providers can provide them.
My own long-standing position on this is clear in terms of the legislation and the need for it. However, it is equally important that the impact of the proposed legislation on the rights of those affected is proportionate to the objectives we seek to achieve. 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.
Ireland has significant human rights commitments and obligations, both domestically in the Constitution, and internationally. Article 40.6.1° of Bunreacht na hÉireann provides that the State guarantees liberty for the exercise, subject to public order and morality, of the right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions, and also the right of the citizens to assemble peaceably.
Similar rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, to freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
While these freedoms are subject to exceptions, the United Nations has specified that states should establish in law a positive presumption in favour of peaceful assembly. This means there is a very delicate balance to be struck in this Bill to address this. I believe the Bill does strike the balance that is required. It acknowledges and promotes, on a proportionate basis, the human and constitutional rights involved. It also ensures safe access to termination of pregnancy services for women, service providers and their staff across the country. This will be achieved by designating safe access zones of 100 m from an entrance or exit to a premises where obstetricians, gynaecologists and GPs provide services.
The Bill is a general prohibition on expression, assembly or protest in relation to termination of pregnancy services. It does not interfere with the right to advocate in favour or against abortion, apart from in the limited areas covered by safe access zones and in the limited fashion covered by the concept of "prohibited conduct" as set out in section 2.
Furthermore, section 3 sets out exemptions that may apply in the context of prohibited conduct within safe access zones and, in doing so, it further acknowledges and promotes the balancing of various rights. The mechanism of the Garda warning also enhances legal certainty and protection of rights, and provides the person concerned with the opportunity to avoid committing an offence.
In moving the Bill forward, we mark another milestone in advancing women's healthcare in Ireland, and I believe we do so in a way that respects the rights of all concerned. This Bill will allow women to access lawful healthcare services without intimidation. It will allow service providers and their staff to provide these services without intimidation. It will also allow those who wish to advocate in favour or against abortion to continue to do so except in the limited circumstances in the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.