A Bill in Northern Ireland, which would allow for the introduction of censorship zones that will criminalise offers of assistance outside of abortion clinics in the region, has been delayed after the Attorney General for Northern Ireland raised concerns about whether this Bill was within the legislative competence of the Stormont Assembly.
The Bill, introduced by former Green Party MLA Claire Bailey, who lost her seat in the most recent local elections, makes it a criminal offence to “influenc[e]… a… person [seeking an abortion], whether directly or indirectly” within “safe access zones”. The Bill will effectively criminalise offers of assistance and prayer within 150m of abortion clinics or hospitals where a censorship zone is in place.
The Bill was approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly in March but an intervention by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, Dame Brenda King, has asked the UK Supreme Court to determine whether part of the Bill is within the “legislative competence” of the Stormont assembly.
Specifically, the Attorney General is concerned about the omission of a “reasonable excuse” defence in the legislation.
In a statement, the Attorney General’s office said it had to be determined whether offences created by the Bill were a “proportionate interference with the rights of those who wish to express opposition to abortion services in Northern Ireland”.
As the Bill was being debated, TUV MLA Jim Allister attempted to amend the Bill to allow for a “reasonable excuse” within the legislation. However, the amendment was rejected.
The Bill is now delayed until the Supreme Court is able to make a judgement on the matter.
A public consultation on the Bill found that only 13 out of 6,412 respondents were supportive of the Bill.
“[This] bill… will shut down options open to women who find themselves in crisis”
Prior to the Bill being voted through in March, Alina Dulgheriu, who was herself scheduled to have an abortion but decided to not go ahead with it after receiving help from pro-life volunteers outside an abortion clinic in London, said:
“The day that I turned up to my abortion appointment, a volunteer outside the clinic gave me a leaflet. It offered the help that I had been searching for. I weighed up the two options I had before me, and I chose motherhood. I chose to accept help to get housing, help to find a job and help to obtain a pram, a cot and nappies. It wasn’t easy. But with the support of the group who had given me that leaflet, I couldn’t be prouder of the life my daughter and I have charted out together”.
“[This] bill, designed to prevent us from hearing about offers of support to continue our pregnancies, will shut down options open to women who find themselves in crisis. Such legislation would have been detrimental to the course of my life”.
Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson, said: “Former MLA Claire Bailey was very keen to fast-track her Bill and ensure that there was as little scrutiny as possible. It is no wonder that it has been stalled by the Attorney General. Hopefully the Supreme Court in the UK will judge that Stormont did not have the legislative competence to omit a defence of ‘reasonable excuse’. This draconian legislation will be marginally less bad if it retains this defence”.