Wednesday 20 February 2019

Martina Devlin: 'The right to protest gives nobody the right to intimidate others - it allows no one to undermine another's right to make a private decision'

Picket: Anti-abortion protesters outside Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. Picture by Ciara Wilkinson
Picket: Anti-abortion protesters outside Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. Picture by Ciara Wilkinson
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Imagine having to pass protesters on your way into court, where a judge is ready to deal with your divorce application, because some people believe marriage ought to be "till death us do part".

Or how about having to make your way past a blockade to access a family planning clinic? What if you had to face down people with reproving placards beside a chemist's shop stocking emergency contraception?

How about trying to get by pickets outside a hospital which does sterilisations or gender reassignment? How would you feel about demonstrations outside venues conducting same-sex marriages?

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There will always be some laws opposed by certain groups. Obviously they should not be able to impede access to services. But should they have the right to protest publicly - even if other people feel anxiety as a result?

I'm asking these questions because of anti-abortion activism at a GP practice in Galway and a Drogheda hospital over recent days. Inevitably, the presence of demonstrators, with 'Love them both' and 'Real doctors don't terminate their patients' signs, causes distress to patients and service providers alike.

Their purpose is to hinder women from having terminations which are legal, at last, in Ireland up to 12 weeks into pregnancy without restriction - signed into law just over three weeks ago.

The presence of picketers may also deter doctors from registering with the HSE to provide abortion pills - currently, a relatively low number of GPs (some 200) is listed. Four counties - Sligo, Leitrim, Carlow and Offaly - have no service providers.

Presumably, the number of participating GPs will grow as the service beds down but, for now, some practices may be keeping a wary eye on the anti-choice brigade.

Protests were envisaged and steps ought to have been taken in advance. Perhaps the Government hopes they will fizzle out quickly, but that has not been the experience of other countries, with many obliged to introduce safe zones around clinics and hospitals to keep demonstrators at a distance.

Health Minister Simon Harris has indicated he will introduce legislation for similar buffer areas here. Minister, you really need to crack on because this is likely to take time. Meanwhile, vulnerable women as well as staff are being stigmatised.

Those opposed to women's reproductive choice claim it is undemocratic to interfere with their right to protest. Oddly, however, they have no problem with imposing their moral code on others.

When rights compete with one another, balance is needed. So, while the right to protest in public places is an important one, why must it take place outside a GP's clinic or hospital?

That's where a demonstration spills over into something inherently aggressive, seeking to demonise women who choose a termination. The right to protest gives nobody the right to intimidate others. It allows no one to undermine another's right to make a private decision.

If activists want to highlight a law they take issue with, they should carry their placards to the pavements outside Leinster House, where our legislators conduct business. Ministers, TDs and senators pass in and out regularly - neither their banners nor chants will missed.

Furthermore, if protesters really care about preventing abortions, they might consider directing their efforts towards sex education and contraception.

Private individuals should never be the focus of public protests. Whether demonstrators are polite or noisy, and whether placards are inoffensive or use graphic images, it is intrusive to home in on vulnerable women. They have made their decision already. And probably not an easy one in most cases. Such protests invade people's right to medical privacy.

And what of forcing medical staff to run the gauntlet of pickets on their way in and out of work? That's not protesting; it's something closer to bullying. Staff may be stuck indoors all day rather than go outside during breaks, their freedom of movement impeded.

Protests ought to have been foreseen and measures adopted in advance. Demonstrations are hardly a bolt from the blue - there was every indication some zealots would ignore the voice of the people. Couldn't provision for anti-harassment areas have been stipulated in the legislation? Some line about unimpeded access to services, or no protesters within 150 metres of a clinic?

In any event, the Government has a duty to act swiftly and decisively. Nothing that deters citizens from availing of legally available services or makes it unnecessarily difficult for them to do so is acceptable.

The law must be upheld - it's not a draconian law forced on a reluctant population, it was introduced following a plebiscite passed by two-thirds of those who voted; the result last May was close to landslide proportions.

There is another issue to consider. What if protests frighten off women for days or weeks, causing a delay in accessing a termination? Women might end up missing appointments and having later abortions. This could mean they would have to opt for surgical rather than medical terminations, with a somewhat higher possibility of complications. So much for the "love both" of anti-choice lobbyists.

Ease-of-access zones are a must in the interests of public safety because abortion is a subject which can cause tensions to ratchet up. Potentially, patients and service providers are at risk. In Ealing, west London, the local council has been obliged to introduce a protest exclusion area around a Marie Stopes clinic.

There is a long history of shooting doctors at US clinics, while an escalation in violent attacks was recorded in 2017.

Incidents include an attempted pipe bomb explosion at an Illinois clinic (it failed to detonate), repeated brick throwing at a Cleveland clinic's windows causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage, while in New Jersey a man crashed a stolen truck into Planned Parenthood's offices. Figures in the US show an upsurge in attempts to intimidate both patients and staff, as well as obstruction of access to abortion clinics.

Increased cases of trespass were reported last year, with activists entering service provider outlets and forcing their views on people there.

Despite breaking the law, they are treated as heroes by those who share their anti-choice perspective.

None of that could happen here, you say? I wouldn't bank on it. Consider how British Labour politician Jo Cox was killed in 2016 by a man who resented what he regarded as her liberal views.

Tory MP Anna Soubry was jostled and derided as "scum" and a "Nazi" by hardcore Brexit supporters on her way into the Palace of Westminster just this week because she favours a People's Vote.

Finally, shame on our health service for charging women from the North for terminations. Many are Irish citizens. Treat them accordingly.

Irish Independent

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