By Gráinne Ní Aodha and Cate McCurry, PA
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he wants to see legislation on setting up safe access zones outside facilities that provide abortion services become enacted this year.
Under the proposed laws, anti-abortion protesters could be fined or jailed for holding demonstrations outside healthcare facilities that provide termination services.
The plans are due to be approved by Cabinet on Wednesday.
The safe access zones will be set up 100 metres around any facility that can provide abortion services, not just those that currently do so.
Protests will be banned within the exclusion zones.
Speaking ahead of Cabinet, Mr Donnelly said the introduction of exclusion zones has been a Government commitment, describing it as an “important” measure.
“We have evidence from around the country, from particular hospitals in particular parts of the country, of women being intimidated when they are looking to seek access to services and indeed clinicians who are subject to protest, which is simply not appropriate,” Mr Donnelly said.
“What I have today is a proposal for Government which would create safe access zones around all healthcare facilities, critically not only those currently providing the services but those that could provide a service.
“That could incorporate all GP practices, the relevant hospitals, the relevant family planning organisations.
“It’s a very positive move. I will be looking to engage with the Oireachtas health committee on pre-legislative scrutiny. We need to look at the time commitments the health committee can give this.
“I would love to see this pass through all stages into law and become operational in this calendar year.”
Mr Donnelly said Cabinet will look at bringing in escalating penalties for those prosecuted under the new offence.
“It’s one of the areas I want to discuss with Cabinet and would be very interested in getting the views from the Oireachtas health committee on,” he added.
Eilis Mulroy, of the anti-abortion campaign, said the Government’s plan to introduce exclusion zones sets a “very dangerous precedent for denying freedom of expression and the right to peacefully assemble in public areas”.
She added: “The proposal being put forward is a wholly disproportionate response to the risk that a tiny number of people may at some point in the future engage in harassing behaviour close to an abortion facility.
“No-one wants to see people harassed when approaching a hospital or GP surgery.
“Where such incidents do occur, the authorities already have wide-ranging powers to deal with the situation under existing public order laws.”
She described the proposals as “regressive and draconian”.