Programme for Government will ban pro-life vigils outside hospitals

The newly agreed Programme for Government includes a commitment to impose ‘exclusion zones’ which would stop even silent pro-life vigils outside hospitals and GP surgeries where abortions take place or are facilitated. This is an extreme measure and, as a national law, would be unique in Europe.

The Programme includes other measures of concern (see below). For example, it promises yet another Citizens’ Assembly, this time on the future of schools. Will this have denominational education in its sights? It wants to strengthen ‘hate crime’ legislation. Will this overreach and attack free speech, including that of religious believers?

Perhaps the negotiators have forgotten that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar himself indicated that the move to introduce exclusion zones might be unconstitutional, and the Garda Commissioner said he saw no evidence an exclusion zone law is needed.

Leo Varadkar told the Dáil in April of last year: “We are running into real difficulties around restricting peaceful protest and restricting free speech.” The Taoiseach also conceded that in placing a ban on peaceful protest “we do enter a difficult space in a democracy when you decide that certain opinions can’t be held, certain types of protests can’t happen. In a democracy, if you’re going to restrict free speech and if you’re going to restrict the right to protest, you need to be on very solid ground.”

Last September, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris told the Minister for Health that there was no evidence to suggest that there is threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour directed towards persons utilising abortion services. “I re-confirm my views expressed at our recent meeting that protests to date at such centres have not contravened the law and are peaceful”, he said. The Garda Commissioner was of the opinion that existing laws against harassment and intimidation are more than adequate to deal with whatever issues may arise.

In other words, the exclusion zone plan has no justification and is possibly unconstitutional. It is certainly draconian.

The new Programme contains other worrying proposals.
  • The Government plans to enact the Assisted Reproduction Bill, which will allow surrogacy, gamete “donations”, experimentation on embryos, etc.
  • The new Government wants to remove the need for someone aged 16 and 17 years to have two specialist reports before they can apply for changing their legal gender. A simple self-declaration would be considered sufficient. They are also commencing research to examine similar arrangements for children under 16.
  • They aim at offering the legal recognition of “non-binary people” (those who don’t consider themselves to be a man or a woman) and also want to amend the equality legislation with a new form of discrimination on the basis of “gender identity”.
  • They will revise the sex education at primary and post-primary level. What will this mean? Will it clash with school ethos?
  • The new Government plans to introduce hate crime legislation, which would limit freedom of speech.
  • They will establish a Citizens’ Assembly on the future of education. Will this be an attack to denominational education?
  • They are committed to increase funding to political parties to support gender and diversity programmes.

A review of the abortion legislation is due in 2021. The Programme does not give details of what changes the Government will make but during the negotiations the Green party asked for the removal of the three-day waiting period before a woman obtains an abortion.