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Northern Ireland Assembly passes buffer zone law to protect women accessing abortion services

Pictured: anti-choice protest. Wikimedia Commons, Night Owl, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Last night the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill passed its final stage in the Northern Ireland Assembly by 55 votes to 29. This is the first time Assembly members have passed pro-choice legislation. The Bill will create safe zones in the immediate vicinity of abortion clinics to prevent harassment and intimidation of women by anti-choice activists. Brought as a Private Member’s Bill by Green MLA Clare Bailey, it now only needs Royal Assent to become law.

Northern Ireland Humanists and Humanists UK welcomed the passage of the Bill, and called for other UK jurisdictions to pass similar laws.

Ms Bailey commented: ‘The deliberate and concerted campaign of harassment and intimidation against women has to stop. During my time as a volunteer with the Marie Stopes clinic, I was spat at, splashed with holy water, called a murderer, and watched a woman run into oncoming traffic to escape these people. This needs to stop, this is not protest as I understand it.’

Humanists UK is a founding supporter of the Back Off campaign, coordinated by BPAS, which aims to change the law to make it possible to establish buffer zones around clinics. The campaign was started due to an intensification of anti-choice protests around clinics. At such protests, anti-choice activists have accosted women without solicitation, shouted abuse, exposed them to distressing and graphic images, either in leaflets or on large banners, filmed people entering and leaving clinics without their consent, and blocked the entrances to the clinics.

Northern Ireland Humanists believes that the introduction of buffer zones balances the competing rights between women accessing safe and legal medical services without being harassed and intimidated for doing so, and anti-choice activists to freely express their views. The Bill will make it possible for women to access clinics without being subjected to unsolicited approaches from activists whose primary intention is to cause distress when they are undertaking an emotional and significant decision. But it does not ban or in any way prevent anti-choice activists from organising such activities. Instead it offers women a meaningful choice about whether they wish to engage with these activities or not. Such measures have been successfully introduced in states in Australia, Canada, and the United States.

Humanists UK Campaigns Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan commented:

‘Since the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland over two years ago, women have had the legal right to access safe and local abortion services. Whilst we respect the right of those who disagree with abortion to express their views, this does not extend to tactics that involve harassment, physically blocking access to clinics, and, as we have seen in some instances, violence and assault. This new law will strike the right balance between the right to peacefully protest and the right of women to freely access healthcare to which they are legally entitled.

‘This is the first time that MLAs have passed pro-choice legislation, and that is to be congratulated. This is reflective of a significant change in the support for a woman’s right to choose both within the Northern Ireland public and the Assembly that represents them.

‘The new law puts Northern Ireland ahead of the rest of the UK, where such legislation does not exist but is also needed. We urge the governments of Britain to now follow Northern Ireland’s lead and introduce their own buffer zone bills.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, media should contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator at boyd@humanists.uk or phone 07918 975795.

Read the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill.

Read more about the Final Stage vote on this Bill.

Read more about our campaign work on abortion.

Northern Ireland Humanists is part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland. Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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