Gar­dai mon­i­tor anti-abor­tion picket out­side GP clinic

Two weeks is too soon to de­ter­mine what new laws may be needed to pre­vent pro-life pro­test­ers gath­er­ing out­side med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties, writes Eilis O’Han­lon

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Today In Your - Jerome Reilly

A GROUP of up to 15 peo­ple pick­eted out­side a health clinic which has signed up to pro­vide ter­mi­na­tion ser­vices.

The Health Clinic, lo­cated in Graigue­na­managh, Co Kilkenny, is so far pro­vid­ing the only ter­mi­na­tions in the ad­join­ing coun­ties of Car­low and Kilkenny.

The anti-abor­tion group started their protest at around 11am yes­ter­day both out­side the clinic and a Cis­ter­cian church lo­cated close by.

Lo­cal gar­dai mon­i­tored what was de­scribed by one source as a “tense sit­u­a­tion”.

It is un­der­stood that the re­spected and long-es­tab­lished clinic, which has two GPs, re­ceived a num­ber of nui­sance calls last Fri­day from those op­posed to the pro­vi­sion of abor­tion med­i­ca­tions which caused upset to staff.

Gar­dai are also in­ves­ti­gat­ing the phone calls made to the clinic. It is be­lieved that on­go­ing is­sues in set­ting up the ser­vice in St Luke’s Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal in Kilkenny are de­lay­ing the im­ple­men­ta­tion of abor­tion ser­vices to the wider ar­eas of Car­low, Kilkenny, Tip­per­ary and Laois.

More than 600,000 peo­ple live in the south-east of the coun­try. The picket is the third known protest since ter­mi­na­tion ser­vices be­came le­gal in the State. The first oc­curred just three days af­ter New Year’s Day in Gal­way and an­other took place ear­lier last week in Drogheda, Co Louth.

Of the 3,500 GPs in the coun­try, just over 200 have signed up to pro­vide the ser­vices. A third of GPs in Ire­land are women. GPs re­ceive €300 to pro­vide the ser­vice per ap­point­ment from the HSE, while they re­ceive €120 to see a preg­nant woman right up to six weeks af­ter giv­ing birth.

The protests have sparked re­newed calls for the in­tro­duc­tion of ex­clu­sion zones to pre­vent women seek­ing ter­mi­na­tions from fac­ing protests when ac­cess­ing ser­vices.

Min­is­ter for Health Si­mon Har­ris has promised to in­tro­duce leg­is­la­tion for such zones.

The Gal­way group stood out­side the Galvia West Med­i­cal Cen­tre for sev­eral hours on Jan­uary 3 bear­ings signs such as ‘Say no to abor­tion in Gal­way’, while an­other group protested out­side Our Lady of Lour­des Hos­pi­tal in Drogheda.

FOR the en­tire his­tory of the State, it has been il­le­gal for Ir­ish women to end un­wanted preg­nan­cies with­out trav­el­ling to an­other ju­ris­dic­tion. As of Jan­uary 1, any woman in an early enough stage of preg­nancy can have an abor­tion in Ire­land for any rea­son.

One would imag­ine that the nov­elty of this change would be suf­fi­ciently great to over­come any early hic­cups in the roll out of ser­vices. Not so. Any woman may now be free to have an abor­tion, but the fact that she may, at cer­tain points, have to pass a protest by pro-life cam­paign­ers, has it­self been suf­fi­cient to cause con­ster­na­tion.

The To­gether For Yes cam­paign was quickly out of the start­ing blocks to dub the protests “de­plorable” and “de­spi­ca­ble”, and to call on the Min­is­ter for Health to “ur­gently” cre­ate protest-free ex­clu­sion zones around abor­tion fa­cil­i­ties. The call did not fall on deaf ears. Si­mon Har­ris is mov­ing ahead swiftly with leg­is­la­tion to crim­i­nalise anti-abor­tion protest.

To put this in con­text, Bri­tain passed abor­tion leg­is­la­tion in 1967, some 52 years ago, and to date only one ex­clu­sion zone has ever been put in place, at the Marie Stopes clinic in Eal­ing, West Lon­don, and that by the lo­cal coun­cil rather than cen­tral gov­ern­ment. Abor­tion has been on the statute books in Ire­land for just 13 days, and al­ready steps are be­ing taken to leg­is­late for a blan­ket ban against protest.

Is it un­rea­son­able to sug­gest that this is too soon to as­sess the need for such ex­clu­sion zones, or to ex­plore al­ter­na­tives to an out­right ban? Protests may fiz­zle out. Ev­i­dence from other coun­tries sug­gests that a small scale pres­ence can be main­tained out­side abor­tion clin­ics for decades, but we might still ul­ti­mately de­cide that this is a small price to pay for liv­ing in a free so­ci­ety which al­lows both le­gal and safe abor­tion and le­gal and safe protest. Ir­ish women go­ing to Eng­land all these years cer­tainly thought the protests there were worth en­dur­ing. Us­ing the law so soon does feel like tak­ing a sledge­ham­mer to crack a nut.

The ar­gu­ment is that women should be free to ac­cess ser­vices to which they’re en­ti­tled with­out ha­rass­ment or in­tim­i­da­tion, and there’s no quar­rel with that; but it would be hard to ar­gue that things have al­ready reached the stage in Ire­land, within days, where the sit­u­a­tion has got out of hand.

The pro­test­ers who gath­ered last week out­side Our Lady of Lour­des hos­pi­tal in Drogheda, Co Louth, af­ter un­con­firmed re­ports that an abor­tion was to be car­ried out there, did not even hand out leaflets, much less at­tempt to in­ter­fere with any­one go­ing in and out.

There are al­ready laws in place to deal with sit­u­a­tions where le­git­i­mate protest breaches the pub­lic peace, or oth­er­wise causes alarm or dis­tress to tar­geted in­di­vid­u­als. The 1994 Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Act gives the gar­dai con­sid­er­able pow­ers to move on peo­ple who are caus­ing a nui­sance. In the UK last Septem­ber, Home Sec­re­tary Sa­jid Javid ruled out ex­tend­ing ex­clu­sion zones around abor­tion clin­ics for that very rea­son, be­cause the laws were al­ready in place to deal with the sit­u­a­tion. Why this sud­den de­mand for ur­gent ac­tion here?

Be­cause of their size, protests at GPs’ surg­eries are cer­tainly prob­lem­atic, rais­ing con­cerns about pa­tient con­fi­den­tial­ity; the rise in the num­ber of GPs sign­ing up to of­fer abor­tion pills since the New Year means that the op­por­tu­nity for mis­chief by pro­test­ers is po­ten­tially grow­ing by the week. There are also cer­tain ac­tiv­i­ties, such as the block­ing of foot­paths or en­trances, which most rea­son­able peo­ple would re­gard as wrong.

But at large hos­pi­tals, peo­ple come and go con­stantly for all sorts of rea­sons, pa­tients and vis­i­tors and staff alike, so it would be hard to ar­gue, as the Taoiseach seemed to do last week, that women are be­ing “im­peded when they’re try­ing to ac­cess a med­i­cal ser­vice”. How is such an im­ped­i­ment to be de­fined?

Lawyers 4 Choice ar­gue that the Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Act doesn’t go far enough, and specif­i­cally want to ban be­hav­iour which is “hurt­ful”, but that opens up a whole new can of worms. No doubt it doesn’t make a woman feel good to ar­rive at hos­pi­tal for a ter­mi­na­tion to find peo­ple hold­ing plac­ards with pic­tures of dead ba­bies, with slo­gans such as “Warn­ing — Killing In Progress”; but protest can­not be crim­i­nalised be­cause it hurts peo­ple’s feel­ings. Hurt feel­ings are an in­di­vid­ual prob­lem. The State’s re­spon­si­bil­ity is to en­sure that you can ac­cess le­gal ser­vices, not to make you feel bet­ter about your­self at the time or af­ter­wards.

Un­less and un­til women are be­ing specif­i­cally tar­geted — as was al­legedly hap­pen­ing in Eal­ing — dra­co­nian new mea­sures would surely be pre­ma­ture and dis­pro­por­tion­ate. More trou­bling still is what prece­dent it would set.

When for­mer Tanaiste Joan Bur­ton was trapped in her car in Job­stown in 2014 by an­gry wa­ter charges pro­test­ers, no one se­ri­ously suggested that the right to protest be re­moved, and that was di­rected against a spe­cific in­di­vid­ual, re­strict­ing her free­dom of move­ment for some hours.

All sides agreed that Bur­ton was “en­ti­tled to be there”, just as women seek­ing abor­tions are en­ti­tled to be where they are; but coun­sel for Paul Mur­phy TD, who was found not guilty on a charge of false im­pris­on­ment, told the court that protest is a “highly pro­tected form of le­git­i­mate po­lit­i­cal and so­cial ac­tiv­ity pro­tected in all modern democ­ra­cies as an es­sen­tial right”. In­deed, he pointed out: “The role of the gar­dai... in­cludes the pro­tec­tion of the right to protest and those ex­er­cis­ing that right.”

He quoted from a fa­mous le­gal rul­ing in the UK, where non-vi­o­lent pro­test­ers from the Women’s Peace Camp were ex­cluded from land near a US nu­clear base af­ter the Min­istry of De­fence passed new bye laws to re­move them on grounds of pub­lic or­der and safety.

The Court of Ap­peal found in the women’s favour, con­clud­ing: “Rights worth hav­ing are un­ruly things. Demon­stra­tions and protests are li­able to be a nui­sance. They are li­able to be in­con­ve­nient and tire­some or at least per­ceived as such by oth­ers who are out of sym­pa­thy with them. Some­times they are wrong­headed and mis­con­ceived.” That did not mean the right to protest could be ditched with­out “press­ing so­cial need, suf­fi­cient to jus­tify an in­ter­fer­ence with free­dom of ex­pres­sion”.

It’s wor­ry­ing to see many of those who de­fended what hap­pened in Job­stown now urge the full force of the State to be de­ployed against a dif­fer­ent group of pro­test­ers, sim­ply be­cause they don’t agree with their cause.

The dou­ble stan­dard is stag­ger­ing. In 2013, the Ir­ish Coun­cil for Civil Lib­er­ties (ICCL) co-signed a let­ter to the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil which de­clared: “Al­though our in­di­vid­ual do­mes­tic ex­pe­ri­ences stem from di­verse po­lit­i­cal con­texts and le­gal sys­tems, we are united by our con­vic­tion that pub­lic protest is an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of any vi­brant democ­racy.”

Yet the same ICCL came out this week to de­mand that the right to protest be re­moved “im­me­di­ately” around abor­tion fa­cil­i­ties.

Are rights now de­pen­dent on lik­ing the per­sons seek­ing them?

Ex­clu­sion zones ex­ist in parts of Aus­tralia, the US and Canada, where they have been deemed by the courts to rep­re­sent a “rea­son­able im­pair­ment” on the con­sti­tu­tional right to protest. It may be that we come to the same con­clu­sion, but two weeks is too soon to make such a huge judge­ment call.

Paul Mur­phy put it best when pre­vi­ously crit­i­cis­ing moves by Char­lie Flana­gan, then Min­is­ter for Jus­tice, to out­law the film­ing of gar­dai on duty: “Us­ing iso­lated in­ci­dents of abuse to push for leg­is­la­tion... rep­re­sents a very cyn­i­cal ex­ploita­tion of that abuse in or­der to un­der­mine civil lib­er­ties.” Are pro-lif­ers wrong to sus­pect the same thing is hap­pen­ing again?

‘Peace­ful protest can­not be crim­i­nalised just be­cause it hurts peo­ple’s feel­ings’

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