Move to create safe zones outside abortion clinics passes Assembly hurdle
Proposed legislation to create protest exclusion zones outside abortion clinics in Northern Ireland has passed its latest Assembly hurdle.
Two thirds of MLAs voted in favour of a private member’s bill tabled by Green Party leader Clare Bailey.
Ms Bailey is seeking to establish areas outside clinics that offer abortion services or family planning advice where activities that seek to influence or impede people attending would be criminalised.
The Bill passed by 58 votes to 29 in the Assembly and will now proceed to the committee stage for detailed scrutiny.
Any delays in its legislative journey could put it at risk of not making it onto statute before the Assembly mandate ends ahead of the next election.
If it becomes law, the north would become the first place in the UK to introduce such zones at facilities offering abortions.
During today’s debate, Ms Bailey spoke of being assaulted and spat at outside an abortion clinic as she urged fellow MLAs to back her Bill.
She outlined her experience as a volunteer at the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast city centre.
Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws were liberalised in 2019, but provision of services has yet to be fully rolled out across the north amid a political dispute over the highly sensitive issue.
South Belfast MLA Ms Bailey said a “campaign of harassment and intimidation” outside facilities offering abortions or family planning advice had “escalated” in recent months.
However, she said her desire for exclusion zones pre-dated recent events.
The Marie Stopes clinic, which closed in 2017, was the scene of regular protests by anti-abortion campaigners.
“This comes in response to what I witnessed and what I experienced during my time as a volunteer with the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast city centre,” Ms Bailey told the Assembly.
“What I learned during that time was that this was not protest, certainly not protest as I understand it.
“What is happening on our streets is a very deliberate campaign of harassment and intimidation against women.
“During my time spent there I was spat at, I was assaulted, I had holy water splashed on me, I was verbally abused, I had one young woman who was so distressed that she ran into four lanes of oncoming traffic to try and escape the protesters.
“I had another young woman alone in the city being filmed and threatened to be uploaded and broadcast on social media.”
The DUP voted against Ms Bailey’s Bill.
During the debate, party MLA Jonathan Buckley expressed concern at the potential limitation on the right to protest if exclusion zones were introduced.
He said his party opposed any form of abuse or harassment but said the Bill would constrain anti-abortion campaigners who wanted to lawfully express their views.
“There is a real risk, that the clauses which constitute the main fabric of the Bill would unfairly restrict freedom of assembly, expression and religious belief, as set out in articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights,” he said.