Seanad debates

Wednesday, 14 September 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Abortion Services

2:30 pm

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Not for the first time I raise the issue of safe access zones with the Minister of State. It has been four years since the historic vote to repeal the eighth amendment to the Constitution. After that referendum, the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, promised legislation to establish safe access zones outside hospitals. The Minister of State knows that, unfortunately, that promise was not maintained. He also knows that a commitment was given in the programme for Government to establish exclusion zones around medical facilities. Unfortunately, in May 2021, the Minister of State told me in a Commencement matter debate that there was no need for this legislation. On the back of that, the Together for Safety campaign group drew up its own Bill and I was very proud to introduce it in the Seanad, with cross-party support. As the Minister of State knows, that Bill passed all Stages in the Seanad.

One of the frustrating aspects of the past couple of years has been a constant promise by the Government to introduce a Bill. The Minister gave me an assurance that the Bill would be introduced by March 2022 but, again, we did not see the Bill materialise. Thankfully, the heads of a Bill were published in August but I emphasise the crucial importance of moving swiftly with this legislation. The Minister of State will agree with me that everybody should have the right to access healthcare, including abortion services, in dignity, privacy and safety. People should have the right to go to work without having to worry about being observed, harassed or intimidated while doing their job. Additionally, there have recent reports from members of the general public that residents and businesses near these facilities as well as service users find their presence incredibly distressing.

What is the status of the plan to advance the Government's safe access zones Bill? The Minister asked me whether I would work with the Government when it introduced its Bill and I gave him a firm commitment that we would. I want the Minister of State to tell me the timeline for this Bill. As I am sure he will acknowledge, after four years, we have been left waiting for far too long. During the summer, the Minister said he expected the Bill to be fully passed through both Houses by Christmas. Will the Minister of State confirm that this is the timeline? If it is not the timeline, will he outline what the expected timeline for the Bill will be so that we can have a firm expectation as to when we will see these key issues addressed?

It is not a coincidence that only one in ten GPs is offering abortion services. One of the factors that has been acknowledged by the Department is that these protests are having a chilling effect in terms of the provision of services. That is why it is so important that we see action and swift action from this Government.

The Minister of State received an excellent submission from the Together for Safety group regarding the Bill. I will briefly highlight three key concerns regarding the content of the Bill the group has raised. The first involves ensuring that industrial action is protected in the Bill. The Minister of State knows that in our Bill, we made sure industrial action is fully protected.I am a little surprised there is no reference to that in the heads of the Bill for the Government's proposed legislation. I again ask for a specific assurance that protection of industrial action will be included in that Bill.

The second issue is that of empowering gardaí. The language in head 4 of the proposed Bill needs to be changed from "may" to "shall", thereby empowering gardaí to take necessary action, should the circumstances call for it, and ensuring that action is taken in every instance.

I also ask the Minister of State for an assurance that the Bill will use inclusive language. It is important that it incorporates such inclusive language to recognise and acknowledge that transgender and non-binary people may become pregnant and require access to termination of pregnancy services. We request that the wording "women and pregnant people" be used throughout the legislation, where appropriate.

I would appreciate positive and clear responses on those points.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Senator Gavan for giving me the opportunity to inform the House, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, of the progress made to date on the safe access zones legislation. I believe the vast majority of us agree that nobody should be harassed, insulted, intimidated or interfered with in any way, or have their decision to access lawful healthcare services subject to attempted influence in an unsolicited way by strangers. The Government is committed to ensuring that anyone needing a termination of pregnancy can access services in safety and with privacy and dignity. This commitment is reflected in the programme for Government.

Progressing safe access zones legislation is a priority for the Minister, and he and his officials have placed a substantial focus on developing robust policy and legislative proposals, recognising the complexity of the issues involved. The Minister brought detailed legislative proposals to Government at the end of July, and he was delighted to secure Government approval for the general scheme of a Bill. The objective of this general scheme and its underlying policy is to protect the right of a woman to access a healthcare service safely, with privacy and dignity, and without facing unsolicited attempts to influence her decision to access it. It will also protect service providers and their staff in the course of their duties and responsibilities.

The proposals aim to establish a 100 m safe access zone around all healthcare facilities that can provide termination of pregnancy services, not just those that currently do, including, for example, all hospitals and GP practices. Within those zones, conduct which is intended to, or may reasonably have the effect of, influencing the decision of a person regarding availing of, or providing, services related to termination of pregnancy will be prohibited. Careful consideration has been given to developing proposals that balance a range of rights, including the right to protest, while ensuring that the legitimate aim to protect the right of a woman to access, and to access safely and with privacy and dignity, termination of pregnancy services is achieved.

For the general information of the House, the general scheme of the Bill for safe access zones was published by the Minister for Health in early August and it is available on the Department's website. The general scheme also provides further detailed explanatory notes on the proposed provisions. Following Government approval, the Department has engaged with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Data Protection Commission and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties seeking any observations they may have.

The Department will continue to engage closely with the Office of the Attorney General, the Department of Justice, the HSE and An Garda Síochána in drafting the final Bill, recognising all the complexities involved. The Minister for Health will also seek the support of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of the legislative proposals as quickly as possible and he acknowledges the helpful public discussion on safe access zones in recent months. The Minister is committed to seeing the Bill drafted as quickly as possible so that it can be introduced to the Oireachtas, while ensuring the final legislation is as robust as possible. The Senator mentioned a Christmas timeline, and I will try to get information regarding the timeline from the Minister. He looks forward to the support of the Senator and, indeed, everyone in the Houses of the Oireachtas in progressing this important legislation.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister of State for the response. In one sense, it is positive. I agree with all the points made and sentiments expressed by the Minister of State in respect of why the Bill is necessary and why it needs to progress.I am worried about the lack of detail around timelines. It is a worry because we have already been waiting four years. I understand the need for pre-legislative scrutiny by the health committee. Does the Minister of State have a date for when that could begin, for example? My worry is that, to be frank, we will not make the Christmas deadline as suggested by the Minister during the summer.

It would also be helpful for me if the Minister of State could confirm that protecting industrial action will be part of the Bill. It should be; there should not be anything controversial about that. Will he confirm that the Garda will be given the necessary powers? Equally important, will he commit to ensuring the Bill has inclusive language, for example, using phrases such as “women and pregnant people”? It is very important that the Bill uses inclusive language. Can the Minister of State give a positive response on those points today at the very least?

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Senator raised a few issues regarding the Christmas timeline. He welcomed pre-legislative scrutiny and raised issue relating to industrial action and inclusive language. I will bring them to the Minister.

Again, I think he will agree that those who wish to protest about termination of pregnancy may continue to exercise that right practically everywhere else, including outside of these Houses but such protest may not occur at the access point of healthcare services where the intention of protest activity is, or could reasonably have the effect of, influencing a woman's private healthcare decision. I understand departmental officials are working with the Office of the Attorney General to progress the drafting of the Bill. I will try to get the Senator as much information as I can.