A Bill seeking to impose ‘buffer zones’ outside abortion clinics in Northern Ireland has been debated at Stormont.
If made law, Clare Bailey MLA’s Private Members’ Bill would criminalise actions deemed to be “influencing” or “alarming” to those accessing such premises. This would prevent people from handing out pro-life literature or speaking to anyone about abortion with a fine of up to £500.
The Bill passed its Second Reading – where the general principles are debated – by 58 to 29 votes, and has been referred to Committee.
In the Assembly debate, Jonathan Buckley MLA told other members that the proposals would restrict “hard-fought basic freedoms and values as old as time”.
He warned that the Bill has “an incredibly broad scope” which would criminalise “anything from a conversation to a leaflet”.
Jim Allister MLA used the example of a “distressed mother” who would fall foul of the Bill for attempting to persuade her daughter outside a clinic not to have an abortion.
Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann told BBC News NI that it is for the Northern Ireland Assembly to consider whether the proposals will protect “freedom of assembly and expression”.
He has agreed a meeting with Bailey and Justice Minister Naomi Long MLA to discuss the Bill further.
Earlier this month, the High Court was told that Stormont has “no obligation” to implement regulations forcing the commission of abortion services across Northern Ireland.
Abortions are currently being provided by individual Health and Social Care Trusts, but Westminster wants this to be a requirement throughout the Province.
John Larkin QC, Northern Ireland’s former Attorney General, spoke on behalf of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children as part of its judicial review against the Westminster Government.
Mr Larkin told the court that there was a “screamingly obvious” gap in the law requiring the Northern Ireland Executive or individual departments to comply with Westminster’s demands that abortion services be commissioned nationwide by 31 March 2022.