Anti-abortion protesters could be fined or jailed for demonstrating outside healthcare settings, under proposed laws going to the Cabinet today.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is to seek approval to introduce legislation on “Safe Access Zones”.
The laws propose buffer zones of 100 metres around any healthcare facilities that can provide termination of pregnancy, and not just those that do so.
This will, in effect, see the introduction of exclusion zones around all hospitals, all GP practices and Wellwoman or Irish Planning Association services.
The laws would prohibit, within these zones, any activity that is intended to, or may reasonably have the effect of, influencing the decision of a person in relation to availing of or providing services relating to termination of pregnancy.
This would include protests such as the ones that have taken place outside Lifford Community Hospital when picketers carried a number of posters with uncensored images of unborn babies.
A graduated system of penalties is proposed, starting with a warning from gardaí.
Some offences would be prosecuted summarily and more serious offences could be indictable before a judge and jury, with penalties including a jail sentence.
It is hoped the legislation can begin the process of pre-legislative scrutiny in September and can be introduced before the end of the year.
The laws have been promised since the introduction of the Health (regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act of 2008. But the Government had claimed that a number of legal issues were identified that necessitated further consideration.
Last year, the Abortion Rights Campaign accused the Government of failing to deliver on the commitment.
In response to the bill, Eilís Mulroy of the Pro Life Campaign said the plan “sets a very dangerous precedent for denying freedom of expression and the right to peacefully assemble in public areas”.
She added: “No one wants to see people harassed when approaching a hospital or GP surgery. Were such incidents to occur, the authorities already have wide-ranging powers to deal with the situation under existing public order laws.
“The fact that citizens could be jailed under this proposal for silently expressing a position in public is utterly alarming.”