Censorship zones that could make praying and offers of help near an abortion clinic illegal with fines of up to £2,500 are set to be introduced in Northern Ireland this Friday.
The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill was passed by Members of the Legislative Assembly in March last year but was delayed by the attorney general of Northern Ireland on the grounds that it “disproportionately interferes” with the right to protest. However, in December 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that the legislation did not “disproportionately interfere” with protesters’ rights.
Earlier this week, the Department of Health in Northern Ireland announced that this law would be coming into effect across all five health trusts in the region. In a statement, the Department of Health said that within the zones, it will be illegal for members of staff and people using abortion services “to be impeded, recorded, influenced or to be caused harassment, alarm or distress…”.
“The zones will include the protected premises where these services are provided, as well as adjoining public space, between 100m-250m from entrances or exits of the protected premises”.
Fined up to £2,500
Causing “harassment, alarm or distress” or even influencing a person seeking an abortion or staff working at a “protected premise”, is forbidden under the new law. Anyone found guilty of engaging in these activities within one of these zones could be fined up to £2,500.
Last year, the Belfast Health Trust had to apologise to Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in Northern Ireland after admitting to deceiving MLAs about the number of incidents involving pro-life demonstrators outside abortion clinics. The Health Trust told MLAs they had inflated the number of incidents that took place over a six-month period from 11 to 41.
The Trust confirmed to the Belfast News Letter that, between the two Assembly Evidence Sessions as the law was considered last year, it added more incidents to its database to inflate the figures from May to October – some of them retrospectively added eight months after they were alleged to have happened.
The Trust also admitted that only four out of the 41 alleged ‘incidents’ were considered worthy of reporting to police.
“Silent prayer, within itself, is not unlawful”
The law is set to come into force in Northern Ireland in the same week as a woman who had been arrested twice for praying silently in her own mind within the vicinity of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, was offered an apology by the police and had all charges against her dropped.
Earlier this month, the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, wrote an open letter to the Chief Constables of England and Wales in which she said that “silent prayer, within itself, is not unlawful”.
Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson, said “It is frightening that well-meaning people who want to offer help to women seeking an abortion, or who want to pray silently within their own minds, can now be found guilty of a criminal offence if they do this with certain places”.
“Buffer zones are direct viewpoint discrimination that denies women in need an alternative to abortion. As has been pointed out many times, there are laws in place to prevent harassment and intimidation and these should be enforced if and when necessary. There is no need for further draconian legislation”.