Lawmakers in Northern Ireland can now create buffer zones around abortion clinics, following a ruling from the UK's Supreme Court. The decision means that Northern Ireland is the first part of the UK to bring in legislation on abortion clinic buffer zones – although this was rolled out on a local council level in England and Wales earlier this year.
The Supreme Court's unanimous decision allows the Northern Ireland assembly to proceed with introducing safe access zones to protect abortion clinic users and staff. The move is part of the Assembly's new Abortion Services Bill, which will criminalise those who enter abortion clinic buffer zones with the intention of influencing attendees.
Opposers of the ruling, including Northern Ireland's attorney general, had argued that introducing buffer zones was a disproportionate interference with the freedom of conscience, speech and assembly of anti-abortion protesters and demonstrators, protected under articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
But on Wednesday 7 December, a written judgment by Lord Reed said the restrictions were in pursuit of a legitimate aim – promoting public health – and compatible with the ECHR rights of anti-abortion protesters.
"The right of women in Northern Ireland to access abortion services has now been established in law through the processes of democracy," he said. "That legal right should not be obstructed or impaired by the accommodation of claims by opponents of the legislation based, some might think ironically, on the liberal values protected by the convention."
Clare Bailey, who began developing the legislation alongside pro-choice campaigners and the human rights sector when she was first elected as a Green Party MLA in 2016, described the ruling as a great relief. "It's the best Christmas present ever," she said in a statement to the press.
As well as Bailey, the ruling has been welcomed by members of the public, along with campaign groups such as Alliance for Choice. "Not having buffer zones in place has directly hurt many people across NI, by allowing abhorrent anti-choice behaviour to continue," Bethany Moore from Alliance for Choice tells Cosmopolitan UK.
"It has led to abortion seekers being stigmatised and shamed at hospital and clinic doors, and in some cases being followed into the healthcare facility or upon exiting the premises," she adds. "Many people have had to endure extremely hostile situations, being verbally and physically accosted, while trying to access healthcare procedures. Anti-choice groups have often stood blocking entry ways, showcasing large graphic billboards, signs and small white coffins, bringing along monks and priests to pray for abortion seekers in attempts to 'change their minds' and pedalling unsafe 'abortion reversal pills' with no medical support."
But it doesn't end there. "These actions are also extremely traumatising for people who miscarry, receive devastating severe or fatal fetal abnormality diagnoses, have stillborn children and for those who have terminal illnesses," Moore points out.
However, things are somewhat looking up. "This ruling is significant as it solidifies the North as the first region in the UK and the island of Ireland to have Safe Access Zones Legislation," Moore explains. "It now sets a precedent for our UK and Irish counterparts to implement safe access zones outside areas of access. It shows that all relevant governments must take immediate action to pass similar legislation to protect those seeking abortion healthcare, without any delays."
Pointing out how abortion buffer zones could soon be rolled out elsewhere, Moore adds: "We are particularly thinking of our siblings at Back Off Scotland and Sister Supporter in England who have also been tirelessly campaigning for this legislation and hope it will help them in their fight for free, safe, legal, local access to abortion care as well."
"The Safe Access Zones Bill is another step to destigmatising abortion in everyday life and solidifying it as a normal, common and safe healthcare procedure," the campaigner says of the future of abortion rights. "It also relieves pressure on the activists who have been protecting community members from this behaviour on a weekly basis."
"Anti-choice groups have become emboldened following events in America," added Jonathan Lord, MSI Reproductive Choices' UK Medical Director, referencing Roe v Wade recently being overturned in the US. "As the [Supreme Court] judges identified, anyone who wishes to access healthcare should have a reasonable expectation of being able to do so without being confronted by behaviour designed to diminish their autonomy."
"We are delighted for our partners and allies in Northern Ireland and look forward to quick action in Scotland, England and Wales to enable everybody in the UK to access the healthcare they need without fear of intimidation, bullying and harassment," Lord went on.
In light of the Supreme Court's ruling on buffer zones in Northern Ireland, Scotland's Women's Health Minister, Maree Todd, said legislation in the country would now go through as soon as possible.
The Department of Health has said it welcomes the Supreme Court decision, and confirmed that once the bill becomes law, it will work with health trusts to ensure the rules and measures are implemented.
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