Safe Zones Called for as Ireland Wrestles With Abortion

The Irish referendum on abortion may have gone in favor of pro-choice campaigners when it was held in May 2018, but the practicalities of implementing the law in the nation’s clinics are still the subject of intense debate. With threats of violence and disruption coming from both sides of the argument, there has now been a call for ‘safe’ exclusion zones to be placed around clinics offering abortion, which protesters will not be allowed to enter.

There has been a wave of protests outside clinics offering abortion since the procedure was legalized, which has seen a group known as the National Women’s Council of Ireland call on the Government to do more to protect women from harassment and threats. An investigation by the Irish Times recently revealed that the American anti-abortion group Sidewalk Advocates for Life was funding and training anti-abortion activists within the country. Their suggested methods include directly approaching women outside the clinics with a view to persuading them not to go through with planned abortions.

Much as Brexit has caused social and political turmoil in the neighboring United Kingdom, liberal legislation within the historically conservative and religious country has caused deep rifts within Irish society. The international view of Ireland is one of a green, verdant and cheerful place – the land of leprechauns and rainbows portrayed in the Chilli Heat slot game, which is popular with online slot players in Great Britain. Instead of gambling for money as happens in the slot game, though, politicians and legislators have been seen to gamble with societal structures and religious beliefs as they drive through their progressive reforms. The legalization of abortion followed hot on the heels of the legalization of same-sex marriage, which was also decided upon via a referendum in 2015.

Dr. Cliona Loughnane, speaking on behalf of the NWCI, feels that the behavior of Sidewalk Activists for Life is intimidating not only for the women using the services, but also to the medical professionals who provide them. She claims there have been incidents of graffiti being sprayed onto the walls of targeted clinics, and graphic images of the procedure being printed onto placards and displayed outside the clinics also. In addition to the proposed exclusion zones, she wishes to see specific prohibitions introduced that would introduce harsh penalties for such behavior.

In its defense, the Sidewalk Advocates for Life group said that the newspaper investigation had deliberately misrepresented both its materials and its practices. They provided a statement directly to the newspaper in which they described themselves as a peaceful and law-abiding organization that seeks to ‘reach out’ to women considering abortion and remind them that they have a choice, and that solutions other than terminating the life of an unborn child are available. They also denied the Times’ suggestion that they were seeking to expand their operations and protest outside more clinics than they currently operate outside.

Ireland’s Minister for Health Simon Harris was unmoved by the group’s denials, stating that he felt they were disrespecting the result of the referendum, and therefore the will of the Irish people. He also confirmed that he was looking to go ahead with the proposal to introduce so-called ‘safe-zones,’ and hoped to have supporting laws in place before the end of this year. Going further, he said that there are already Irish laws in place which make a criminal offense of harassment and intimidation, and that they could be used if the protests didn’t stop.

Since the referendum result was announced, ten hospitals and 274 individual doctor’s surgeries have begun to offer abortion to their patients within Ireland. Specialist counselors and therapists have also been introduced to work in tandem with the new facilities, providing further support to women who are considering or elect to proceed with abortions. Additional hospitals and doctors are expected to follow suit, although few such services currently exist in the more rural and religious Irish districts, which voted heavily against the change in the law.

Perhaps surprisingly, a high-profile religious leader within the country has spoken out against the protesters, insisting that the privacy rights of women visiting the clinics should be respected. Diarmuid Martin, who is the Archbishop of Dublin, said that Ireland’s laws about freedom of expression and protest were clear, and that those laws shouldn’t be tested or broken. He did, however, go on to say that the church in Ireland should be more proactive in reaching out to women struggling with their pregnancies, and providing support. He also expressed a wish that counselors would respect ‘all sides’ of the debate around abortion, and that the possibility of the expectant mother keeping the child should be considered and discussed in full before any final decisions are taken.

The most recent notable anti-abortion protest within the country occurred in the early hours of Monday 18th February, when a doctor’s surgery in Longford was daubed with graffiti overnight. The extensive damage included phrases accusing the Government and doctors of murdering Longford’s unborn children.

Local press around Longford has carried quotes from the daughter of the clinic’s resident doctor Syed Ali, in which she expresses her disappointment and surprise that her father would be targeted. She states that her father is against abortion, and has spoken out in the past about feeling it should only be offered when the life of either the child or the mother are in danger. The matter is currently in the hands of the Irish police, who are consulting CCTV in the hope of identifying the perpetrators.

The incident is one of many, and serves as evidence that the ongoing debate about abortion in Ireland will not end any time soon. While critics of the new law feel that it goes against the Catholic traditions of the country, proponents point out that in the past, Irish women crossed the sea to the United Kingdom to have abortions anyway. They therefore believe the change in law will not result in any more abortions being carried out on Irish mothers than had previously been the case. With tensions on both sides running high, it may be some time before Ireland comes to terms with its new reality.