A number of self-proclaimed ‘pro-life’ MLAs have voted in favour of a Bill that, if it became law, would effectively make it illegal to offer assistance, advice or even to pray in “safe access zones” outside abortion clinics and hospitals offering abortions in Northern Ireland.
The Bill, introduced by Green Party leader Clare Bailey, passed its second reading by 58 votes to 29. If the Bill becomes law, it will be a criminal offence to “influenc[e] a [person seeking an abortion], whether directly or indirectly” within a “safe access zone”.
Unlike other attempts to create a censorship zone around abortion clinics, this Bill does not specify the precise parameters in metres. It states that the censorship zone includes the “public area outside the [location where abortions are being carried out] and in the immediate vicinity”, of those premises.
Ms Bailey’s proposals were brought through Stormont in a private member’s bill and put the onus on the Department of Health to establish these censorship zones that do not permit protests, no matter how peaceful, nor offers of help or advice.
Legislation to prevent harassment already exists
Mr Jim Allister, Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for the Traditional Unionist Voice, was highly critical of the proposed legislation arguing that legislation to prevent harassment already exists. He said: “Under legislation that presently exists… harassment is already a criminal offence, and under the Public Order Order 1987, disorderliness and all that goes with it is already a criminal offence. Where is the necessity to duplicate in the Bill?”
In 2018, then UK Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, when rejecting calls to introduce censorship zones outside abortion clinics in England, made the same point saying: “introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response”.
“The main activities reported to us that take place during protests include praying, displaying banners and handing out leaflets. There were relatively few reports of the more aggressive activities”.
“[A]nything from a conversation to a leaflet would be deemed criminal”
While the DUP and TUV said they were strongly opposed to it, arguing it could affect the right to protest and that such legislation was unnecessary, Sinn Féin, Alliance, the SDLP and Ulster Unionist MLAs were among parties in favour of the move.
The SDLP is a self-proclaimed pro-life party and a number of Ulster Unionist MLAs are also self-proclaimed ‘pro-life’ MLAs who court the pro-life vote in their constituencies. No SDLP or Ulster Unionist MLAs opposed the Bill. A full voting list is provided at the end of this article.
DUP MLA, Jonathan Buckley, described the bill as “regressive” saying: “Under the Bill, anything from a conversation to a leaflet would be deemed criminal. Notwithstanding whether such a definition would be enforceable in practice, that is an incredibly broad scope”.
TUV leader, Jim Allister, objected to the suggestion that “to oppose the Bill is to endorse harassment, abuse or violence. It is none of those things, and I absolutely throw back that slur, which has been cast at those of us who would dare to question the need for and the content of the Bill”.
The Bill has a number of stages to pass before it would become law.
Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson, said: “It was only last year that abortion was forced onto the people of Northern Ireland against their will. Now, it might be illegal to even object to this change outside an abortion clinic, regardless of how peacefully these objections are made known”.
“Proponents of such legislation typically frame it in terms of prevention of harassment and intimidation. But as Sajid Javid discovered when he investigated this in 2018, the vast majority of activity outside of these clinics is prayer, holding banners and passing out leaflets. Whenever genuine harassment takes place, it should be stopped and we already have legal mechanisms to do this”.
“Preventing people from offering assistance to those seeking an abortion is a gross form of state overreach, and a direct attack on the freedom to express the view that unborn babies and their mothers have a right to life”.
MLAs who voted YES to the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill
|Gerry Carroll||People Before Profit Alliance|
|Caoimhe Archibald||Sinn Féin|
|Cathal Boylan||Sinn Féin|
|Linda Dillon||Sinn Féin|
|Jemma Dolan||Sinn Féin|
|Sinéad Ennis||Sinn Féin|
|Órlaithí Flynn||Sinn Féin|
|Colm Gildernew||Sinn Féin|
|Declan Kearney||Sinn Féin|
|Gerry Kelly||Sinn Féin|
|Liz Kimmins||Sinn Féin|
|Declan McAleer||Sinn Féin|
|Fra McCann||Sinn Féin|
|Philip McGuigan||Sinn Féin|
|Maolíosa McHugh||Sinn Féin|
|Conor Murphy||Sinn Féin|
|Carál Ní Chuilín||Sinn Féin|
|John O’Dowd||Sinn Féin|
|Michelle O’Neill||Sinn Féin|
|Emma Rogan||Sinn Féin|
|Pat Sheehan||Sinn Féin|
|Emma Sheerin||Sinn Féin|
|Nicola Brogan||Sinn Féin|
|Pádraig Delargy||Sinn Féin|
|Ciara Ferguson||Sinn Féin|
|Deirdre Hargey||Sinn Féin|
|Áine Murphy||Sinn Féin|
MLAs who voted NO to the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill
|Jim Wells||Independent Unionist|
|Jim Allister||Traditional Unionist Voice|