The case for “exclusion zones” undermined by a new Oireachtas report

Minister Simon Harris and co are still seeking ways to justify banning pro-life activism outside hospitals and clinics. The Oireachtas Library and Research Service has just published a report called “The impact of anti-abortion protest on women accessing services. A Rapid Evidence Assessment”, intended to discover if the protests and vigils have any lasting psychological impact on women seeking abortions. The short answer is no, they don’t.

In fact, there is such a paucity of evidence on the topic that the report calls to mind the line in The Fellowship of the Ring where Bilbo Baggins tells Gandalf that he “feels thin, like butter spread over too much bread”

The rationale provided for the analysis is a wish to “inform parliamentary dialogue and debate by equipping Oireachtas Members with the available evidence as to the impact of protest on women accessing abortion services”.

At no point throughout the document, however, are Oireachtas members informed or reminded of the fact that the Garda Commissioner told the Minister for Health in late September that there was no evidence to suggest that there is threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour directed towards persons utilising such services.

Nor are they informed that Garda Commissioner has already confirmed to the Minister his opinion that existing laws are more than adequate to deal with whatever issues may arise.

This is important because, as the document makes clear, it has been framed in the context of Minister Harris’ intention to enact legislation which would create what are termed “safe access zones” around facilities in which abortion is provided.

These are glaring absences that cannot simply be brushed aside with the excuse that the main focus of the assessment is on the psychological and emotional impact of pro-life protest.

That being said, an objective reading of the assessment will do little to comfort the Minister in terms of being able to back him up in his bid to set up exclusion zones.

Referring to the bits of evidence that exist, the report says: “Exposure to anti-abortion protest,  whether passive (prayer/vigils) or active (confronting women), did not appear to have had lasting psychological impact at follow-up after one week (Foster et al, 2013) or at follow-up after two years (Cozzarelli and Major, 2000).

The assessment also refers to a recent study Anti-Abortion Clinic Activism, Civil Inattention and the Problem of Gendered Harassment (Lowe & Hayes, 2019). This is presented as a study which markedly enhances our “understanding of the impact of protest on women accessing abortion services.”

It found that many respondents described their experience of encountering protests as upsetting and intrusive. Respondents also “experienced encounters with anti-abortion activists as harassment, even when they were not being approached aggressively”

“Harassment” is a highly subjective word. A feeling that you are harassed cannot on its own justify these exclusion zones.

And to repeat what Commissioner Drew Harris told Minister Harris, there is “no evidence to suggest that there is threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour directed towards persons utilising such services.”

If this is so, and if there is no evidence from overseas that a pro-life presence outside hospitals and clinics causes damage to women, then our Health Minister’s justification for exclusion zones becomes thinner than ever.