Stephen Donnelly will have felt pleased and smug this morning as the usual sympathetic media reports sound a congratulatory note around his decision to bring a bill to the Cabinet seeking to jail pro-lifers for praying at abortion centres.
Obviously in a country with a million people (one in every five of us) on waiting lists for medical appointments, and a healthcare system in tatters, it’s important that Donnelly makes his priorities clear. He’ll get lots of media kudos and NGO acclaim for coming down heavy on those pesky praying pro-lifers, so that’s top of his agenda. Your granny’s cataracts, which are slowly blinding her, can wait.
It doesn’t seem to matter to Donnelly, or the abortion extremists demanding this bill, that there is no evidence to back up claims that a law is required to crack down on pro-life vigils. Nonetheless, he is making it a priority to use imprisonment and fines to punish silent protests or those whose prayers might be seen as a means of trying to persuade women that there is a better answer than abortion.
Given the lack of evidence, it is hard to see how anything but a great deal of malice and a desire to punish pro-life activists is the primary motivation behind moves to criminalise peaceful and prayerful vigils at abortion centres.
It is now indisputable that the allegations made by groups campaigning for the law have been shown to be untrue, including claims that women were being harassed, and that pro-life prayer vigils were being informed as to when abortions were being carried out.
At first, it was claimed that new legislation was needed because women were being harassed while entering abortion centres. Then the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris said clearly that there was ‘no evidence to suggest that there is threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour directed towards persons utilising such services’. He also added that existing public order laws were sufficient to deal with any cases of harassment should they arise.”
The Garda Commissioner wrote all of this to the Minister for Health, to clarify matters, one presumes. But the Minister for Health didn’t want to listen to the Gardai’s evidence, it seems.
So abortion campaigners just kept repeating the lie, using their allies in the Dáil and Seanad to claim over and over that small, silent, prayerful pro-life vigils at Limerick Hospital, for example, were intimidating and harassing women.
An investigation by Gary Kavanagh of Gript showed that neither Limerick Hospital nor any of the other maternity units and hospitals throughout the country had, in fact, received any complaints from patients or staff. Of course they didn’t, because the vigils usually amount to two women at a time walking quietly around the hospital praying for mothers and babies. The whole push to criminalise such activists is based on a complete fabrication of events and a distortion of reality that has gone completely unchecked by most of the media.
Then further false claims were made alleging that staff in Limerick Hospital were leaking the times of abortion appointments to those praying for mothers. Again, that was shown to be untrue because an FOI revealed there was no set day for abortion appointments, but at no time were the politicians or campaigners who has made this dramatic, highly-charged – and untrue – allegation held to account for misinforming the public.
So now we have the Minister for Health bringing forward legislation, without evidence, simply to appease those who want to punch down at pro-lifers. Given that there is, in the words of the Garda Commissioner, no evidence of any wrongdoing from mostly silent, prayerful pro-life vigils, it is hard to see how anything but malice is motivating this proposal.
In fact, the legislation doesn’t require anyone to misbehave or even to try to speak to a woman who might be undecided or panicked into looking for an abortion. It would criminalise any activity that might “influence” a woman, or an abortion doctor – so a lone pro-lifer holding a small sign saying ‘Pregnant? I can help you’ could face a fine and prison.
You might notice a general trend here in establishment Ireland: despite the shocking rise in the number of abortions, more than 21,000 so far according to Minister Mary Butler, there is a vitriolic opposition to anything that might offer women an alternative to abortion. Witness the furious spleen directed at crisis pregnancy counselling organisations and at retired ladies offering rosaries for pregnant women. It’s actually disturbing.
Of course, the public understanding of the controversy is being massively skewd by the media’s repeated misreporting of the unchecked claims of abortion supporters.
The truth is that most people are not abortion extremists. If they knew the truth – that this bill wants to criminalise peaceful people who are usually silently praying for women and hoping to offer them support – they would be opposed to this measure.
There is no significant evidence that shows a need for this bill: it smacks of the kind of nasty and vindictive malice which can emerge when those who have, for now, achieved a majority want to punish their opponents.
It is also most likely unconstitutional, and the matter will inevitably end up being decided in the courts, where false claims and wild allegations would come under the kind of rigorous scrutiny that TDs, Senators and most media platforms have failed to provide thus far.
In the meantime, those who are committed to praying and holding vigil at abortion centres say they will continue to do so, peacefully and silently, as they have always done. Their courage is admirable.