Open comment on Northern Ireland abortion clinic buffer zone bill ends soon, critics warn

Kevin J. Jones   By Kevin J. Jones for CNA

null / Prostock-studio/Shutterstock.

Belfast, Northern Ireland, Nov 9, 2021 / 17:01 pm (CNA).

Peaceful sidewalk efforts to reach women considering an abortion are in peril if a proposed “draconian” Northern Ireland bill passes, pro-life advocates have warned, calling for concerned citizens to respond to the public comment period ending on Friday, Nov. 12.

“The purpose of the bill is to criminalize any pro-life activity around abortion centers in Northern Ireland,” the pro-life group Precious Life objected Nov. 9.

The public comment, formally known as a Call for Evidence, was not publicized by the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee for Health, and many pro-life advocates did not hear about the consultation, the group said.

The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill requires “buffer zones” around abortion clinics. Protests would not be allowed in these zones. The proposal has progressed past the first legislative stage in the Northern Ireland Assembly. If passed, the law would bar not only harassment but also attempts to influence women seeking abortions or employees of abortion clinics.

“These ‘Abortion Zones’ will rob vulnerable women of an alternative to abortion,” Precious Life said in an action alert. “Pro-life groups have evidence of many women offered help and support outside abortion centers, who decided to keep their babies.”

“The bill is draconian and oppressive, and totally discriminatory as it only targets and criminalizes pro-life people,” the group continued. “Simply holding a sign; distributing information leaflets; talking to a woman to offer her help, or even praying outside an abortion center will be ‘…punishable on conviction by fines…’ up to £2,500 (about $3,400).”

Patients and employees of abortion clinics are identified in the bill as “protected persons.” Offenses under the bill would include “influencing a protected person, whether directly or indirectly,” “preventing or impeding access by a protected person”, and “causing harassment, alarm or distress to a protected person.”

“Pro-life vigils are peaceful, and the police already have adequate powers to deal with any alleged activity that is against the law,” said Precious Life. The bill would violate freedom of assembly and expression, “fundamental human rights” under the Human Rights Act 1998.

There are two similar “safe zones” in England, enacted by local councils rather than higher-level legislatures. There, Precious Life said, costs to taxpayers have mounted through legal appeals against convictions. These estimated costs run from £150,000 to £250,000, about $200,000 to $340,000. The bill said the majority of similar legal expenses would be paid by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland.

“The Health Service in Northern Ireland is already in crisis due to lack of funding. Taxpayers’ money could be better spent on treating people who are on 10 year waiting lists for treatment, rather than adding more financial burdens to the Health Service by needlessly trying to set up and enforce ‘abortion zones’.”

Precious Life said pro-life advocates should make submissions to the assembly health committee in ‘Word’ format attached to an email and sent to:

The assembly’s website said evidence should “address the specific clauses and schedules of the Bill.”

Clare Bailey, the Member of the Legislative Assembly who introduced the bill, claimed she faced verbal abuse and harassment while volunteering at a Belfast abortion clinic more than 10 years ago. She said she was “spat at.”

“I had holy water splashed on me, I was verbally abused, I had one young woman who was so distressed she ran into four lanes of oncoming traffic to escape the protestors,” she said.

Michael Robinson, executive director of the British pro-life group Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said such harassment has been “extraordinarily rare.”

“The intimidation of women outside abortion facilities has been proven time and time again to be a lie, while the abuse that pro-lifers have suffered has not been subject to a review at all,” he said, citing a June assault on a pro-life advocate outside a Belfast abortion clinic.

Proposals for buffer zones around abortion clinics in England and Wales were rejected by the then-British Home Secretary in September 2018, after finding that most abortion protests are peaceful and passive.

The British parliament legalized abortion in Northern Ireland in March 2020, taking advantage of a power sharing dispute between the leading political parties of the self-governing region. Previously, abortion was legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother’s life was imperiled or if there was a risk of long-term or permanent, serious damage to a woman’s mental or physical health.

The new regulations allow elective abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy; abortions up to 24 weeks in cases of risk to the mother’s physical or mental health; and abortion without time limit in cases of severe fetal impairment or fatal fetal abnormality.

The region’s Catholic bishops have called the act “an unjust law,” one “which was imposed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.”

The bishops added that we are “morally obliged, wherever possible, to do all we can to save the lives of unborn children, which could be lost through abortion, and to protect mothers from the pressures they might experience at the time of an unplanned pregnancy.”

Brandon Lewis, Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State, issued a formal direction on July 22 requiring the Northern Ireland Executive and Department of Health to make abortion and post-abortion care available in the region by March 31, 2022. A High Court judge in Belfast recently ruled that Lewis had failed to comply with his duties as Secretary of State by not “expeditiously” making abortion available to women in Northern Ireland.

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