Words: Ellen Kenny
The UK’s highest supreme court has ruled that Northern Ireland can proceed with abortion services bill guaranteeing women’s safety and introduce safe access zones.
The Northern Ireland assembly can legislate to create “buffer zones” around abortion clinics to protect users and staff, the UK’s highest court has ruled. The supreme court’s unanimous approval of proposed Abortion (Safe Access Zones Northern Ireland) Bill means the assembly can implement these safe access zones at maternity clinics and hospitals around the country.
Anti-abortion protests outside hospitals and abortion clinics will become a criminal offense in Northern Ireland under this ruling, as well as attempts to directly argue with or harass any patients or staff entering the premises. It is not yet clear how long it will be until this legislation becomes law.
The legislation was brought to the UK Supreme Court, marking the first time that a piece of Northern Ireland legislation had been referred to the Supreme Court in this way.
The judges ruled that the bill had a “legitimate aim” and while it restricted the exercise of protesters’ rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, the restrictions could be justified.
“It seeks to ensure women have access to advice and treatment relating to lawful termination of pregnancy under conditions which respect their privacy and dignity, and are not driven instead to less safe alternatives.”
A legal system which enabled those who had lost the political debate to undermine the legislation permitting abortion, by relying on freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, would in practice align the law with the values of the opponents of reform and deprive women of the protection of rights which have been legislatively enacted.”
The legislation also protects staff working at health clinics from being intimidated, harassed or abused.
Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill described the judgement as a step forward to protect patients and health workers. Chief Commissioner of The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission also said that this decision was was a “positive affirmation of women and girls’ rights to protection from harassment” when accessing abortion services”.
Safe access zones were first implemented in New South Wales in Australia in 2018. As of August 2021, all states and territories in Australia have safe access zones in place. Western Australia was the last state to implement safe access zones.
The Republic of Ireland also implemented safe access zones in July 2022, banning protests within 100 metres of healthcare facilities. The government initially promised safe access zones in January 2019, and
research from NUI Maynooth studied anti-abortion protests across ten counties and showed the “intimidatory and upsetting” tactics used against women seeking an abortion.
Protestors typically used props such as a white cross and placards depicting graphic images of a foetus. According to Dr. Camilla Fitzsimons, these tactics are a form of “gender-based harassment”.
The Scottish legislature was waiting for the decision of the UK Supreme Court on Northern Ireland before moving forward with their own legislation. The MSP Gillian Mackay, who proposed the Scottish bill, said it could now “progress at pace”.
Elsewhere on District: Irish Gig of the Week: CMAT