A claim – repeated on multiple occasions in the Oireachtas, and reported without challenge in several newspapers – that pro-life activists were being leaked the “dates and times of appointments for terminations [in University Maternity Hospital Limerick] so they can harass women” is totally without merit, Gript can reveal.
The claim was originally made by Together for Safety, a group which supports abortion and seeks to criminalise pro-life vigils. The Limerick-based group is mostly concerned with the introduction of exclusion zones, and has campaigned heavily for their introduction. The group had previously claimed that pro-protesters outside UMHL and family planning clinics were intimidating and harassing pregnant women and staff, a claim which did not stand up to an investigation by Gript, but launched this new claim in February of this year.
This claim was repeated in the Oireachtas, and it was again repeated in an article in the Irish Independent by Ellen Coyne, titled “Anti-abortion protesters say ‘divine providence’ led them to gather to pray at hospital on day of terminations“.
Coyne’s article had to be amended after Gript acquired a recording which showed that Coyne had attributed quotes to Antoinette Fitzgibbon, one of the organisers of the vigil, which Fitzgibbon had simply not said. At the time, Senator Rónán Mullen, speaking in the Seanad, said that Coyne had “invented remarks,” and that “if the shoe was on the other foot and this was a journalist with pro-life sympathies misrepresenting a situation such as this, he or she would be back making coffee and photocopying for a considerable period of time before being allowed to return to the newsroom.”
Sinn Féin Senator Paul Gavan claimed in the Seanad that “Together for Safety has informed me in the past couple of weeks that the protests are now coinciding with the exact times of the appointments that women, including some who are pregnant, have for their own private medical business and often for business that relates to terminations. That is disturbing and clearly it shows that information from within the hospital is being shared with these protesters.”
TD Ivana Bacik similarly told the Dail that “There is an extremely troubling report from Together for Safety that anti-choice activists have been obtaining information about dates and times of appointments for terminations so they can harass women.”
The reference to protests and activists in the above quotes actually refer to a prayer vigil which consists of a small number of women walking on the public streets outside UMHL in quiet prayer. They do not carry signs, nor do they gather around the entrance – they walk the public streets around the perimeter of the hospital. Antoinette Fitzgibbon told Gript that the weekly vigil had started long before the repeal of the Eight Amendment, and that they had always prayed for “all of those sick, ill, and forgotten in the hospital” rather than being concerned purely about abortion.
Documents recieved following an FOI request from Gript, which list every date on which an abortion was carried out in UMHL, show that, far from the prayer vigil in question being held only on days in which abortions were carried out in UMHL there were only two instances between June of 2021 and April of 2022 in which the vigil occurred on the same day as an abortion was carried out in UMHL.
The vigil began to meet on Wednesdays in September of 2021. The documents show that there was only a single abortion carried out in the hospital on a Wednesday in 2021, and that occurred in May of 2021, long before the vigil switched to meeting on that day.
Since that time there have been 19 days on which abortions were carried out in UMHL. Only two of those days have been Wednesdays, and both of those days were in 2022. That is to say that, since the vigil moved to Wednesdays roughly 30 vigils have been held, of which only 2 coincided with days on which abortions were carried out in UMHL.
Between January and March of 2022, UMHL began to carry out abortions on Wednesdays and one other day, although abortions did not occur every week, and there were then two occasions on which the vigil occurred on the same day as an abortion was scheduled. So, rather than a pro-life vigil being leaked information and changing the day on which the vigil occurred in response to it, the hospital itself began to schedule abortions on the same day as the vigil. It’s also worth noting that if Together for Safety’s claims were true the vigil would have been aware that abortions were also being carried out on a second day and one would have expected to see vigils carried out on those days – that is not what we see.
So we have a group who have been meeting on the same day since September of last year, who have held multiple vigils which did not coincide with abortions, and who then had two of their vigils coincide with abortions due to the actions of UMHL, and this was presented as the group being leaked private medical information by sources within the hospital, an immensely serious charge which led to negative attention both for the prayer vigil and the hospital. And we now know that it all seems to have been entirely accidental and that the claims of the deliberate leaking of medical information to a pro-life group are baseless.
There is one question that we still don’t know the answer to, outside of the normal ones like ‘why does it look like pro-choice politicians made no attempt to verify this claim before putting it into the public domain?’, and that is the question of how Together for Safety themselves became aware that there had been some crossover between the vigils and the days on which abortions were carried out in UMHL.
They don’t seem to have gotten access to the full data about abortions in UMHL, or they would have been aware that the crossover was purely accidental and due to changes from UMHL rather than the vigil, but they do seem to have known that the vigil had taken place on the same day as abortions were carried out on more than one occassion. But the dates on which abortions are carried out would be considered highly sensitive, and confidential, medical information, and UMHL heavily restricts the release of that kind of information, for example, they initially refused our FOI requests for the information on the basis that releasing it would “endanger the life or safety or any person,” requiring us to go all the way to Office of the Information Commissioner to try and force the hospital to give us the information. So, how, exactly, did a private advocacy group get this kind of information?