A leading pro-life doctor has said proposed zones which seek to criminalise pro-life prayer are an “infringement of free speech, free assembly and religious liberty”, and described proposals on same as “a vindictive attempt to silence dissent.”
Writing in the Irish Medical Times (IMT), Dr Ronan Cleary strongly refuted an earlier claim by the paper’s editor that the “argument on abortion is over”, and that zones around abortion centres were necessary as pro-lifers were acting like “bullies”.
Dr Cleary, representing Doctors for Life, pointed out that “the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, has already confirmed that he believed establishing ‘safe access zones’ in law was not needed, given the existence of other laws preventing any intimidation or harassment.”
“In fact, he also noted that ‘no incidence of criminality has been reported or observed’ at abortion centres, contradicting the claim that any pro-life vigils (which are usually prayerful and often silent) have involved misbehaviour,” he wrote.
“[Commissioner] Harris further stated that there was ‘no evidence to suggest there is threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour directed towards persons utilising such services’. The Garda Commissioner wrote all of this to the Minister, apparently to deaf ears. Further, a 2019 report from the Oireachtas Library and Research Service stated that ‘safe access’ zones are almost unknown in the rest of Europe,” Dr Cleary pointed out.
In his IMT editorial, Terence Cosgrove wrote that after the 2018 repeal vote, “the blockading of GP practices, family planning clinics and other healthcare facilities by anti-abortion activists is fascist harassment.”
However, no incidents thus described by Cosgrove take place in Ireland. Dr Cleary wrote that Cosgrove “speaks firstly of being a proponent of ‘free speech’, yet then adds caveats to that; and throughout his entire piece speaks of ‘harassment and intimidation’ both of patients and healthcare workers without citing any examples.”
“To legislate, as Minister Donnelly proposes, for ‘safe access zones’ around places where abortions take place, is merely paying lip service to NGOs and pressure groups who wish to introduce punitive measures to punish their political opponents.”
“The Minister, rather than seeking to ‘punish’ ladies for saying the rosary for mothers and their children would be better advised in addressing the waiting lists in this country and the ongoing scandal or our elderly left to languish on A&E trollies. However, ‘safe access zones’ appear to be more of a priority for him,” wrote the Doctors for Life Chair in the Irish Medical Times.
“To be perfectly clear, if anyone faces ‘intimidation or harassment’ from anyone, they already have recourse to the law,” Dr Cleary said.
“As mentioned, if anyone does face ‘harassment or intimidation’ the laws are on the statute books to deal with this. However, an ideological driven piece of legislation such as this, which seeks to criminalise ordinary citizens for expressing their deeply held religious convictions, or simply for just caring about mothers and their unborn children, is an overstep by government and smacks of a vindictive attempt to silence dissent.”
The Doctors for Life spokesman said that Britain had considered similar zones around abortion centres but following a review decided that national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response
“The proposed legislation brought forward by Minister Stephen Donnelly aims to ban the display of any item, including symbols, that has ‘the intended or likely effect of influencing a person’s decision to access termination of pregnancy services’ Could that mean a Crucifix? Imagine two ladies praying the rosary for mothers and babies being detained, searched, placed in cuffs and charged under this proposed legislation for doing no more than expressing their deep desire to help mothers and babies in crisis pregnancies. How can this be called proportionate?” he asked.
“Again, if anyone faces ‘intimidation or harassment’ the law is there to protect them. It should not be there to persecute people holding rosary beads and praying silently, or to jail those you disagree with,” he wrote.
“It will, if passed, likely be open to constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court; Article 40.6.1 guarantees the right to freedom of expression and freedom of Assembly; whilst Article 44 guarantees freedom to practice your religion and freedom of conscience,” Dr Cleary said.
“Consequently, the real bullies are those who wish to shut down debate, who wish to force GPs (90% of whom do not provide the service) who do not wish to participate in abortion into ‘referring’, and who now seek to deny women in crisis pregnancy any chance of last minute counsel in a what is often a life-changing decision.
“The law as it stands safeguards both sides. To introduce ‘safe access zones’ would be to cross the Rubicon and risk making policing in this country quasi political.”
The Life Institute previously described Mr Cosgrove’s article as grossly misrepresenting pro-life activists and “punching down at entirely peaceful vigils, which usually involved silent prayer for mothers and babies.”
“The editor of a medical newspaper makes claims that are untrue, claiming that women seeking abortions are being persecuted, that GP practices are being blockaded, and suggesting that those holding peaceful vigil are ‘fascist’. This is despicable scaremongering, and it is unacceptable for someone in his position,” said Megan Ní Scealláin. “He should apologize for the histrionics and the untrue and unfair portrayal of peaceful activists,” she said.
Mr Cosgrove wrote that a “violent mob” was “preventing our citizens from exercising their human rights as laid out in our Constitution and laws.”
“The government has the right – no, the duty – to protect its citizens from undue harassment, intimidation or violence. And for that reason, it must proceed rapidly with its proposed Bill – which would outlaw the persecution of women seeking terminations.”
However, Ms Ní Scealláin noted that the proposed law sought to punish and jail even silent and peaceful activists, criminalising those who stood with a sign saying ‘I can help’ or anyone holding a rosary.