Northern Ireland can ban prayer and peaceful protest outside abortion clinics in the Province, the UK Supreme Court has ruled.
Judges unanimously rejected the Northern Ireland Attorney General’s appeal against the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill. Dame Brenda King had raised concerns that the censorship zones would disproportionately interfere with the right to protest and so the Assembly does not have the power to impose them.
But the Court rejected her arguments, deciding that the Bill can be implemented as it has a “legitimate aim” deemed to protect women and wider society. The legislation can now become law once it receives Royal Assent.
Supreme Court Justice Lord Reed accepted that the plans would restrict the European Convention rights of protesters, but said this was “justifiable” so that women “are not driven instead to less safe procedures”. He also said the Bill would protect staff working at abortion centres from intimidation.
Clare Bailey, the Green Party MLA who tabled the Bill, called the Court’s decision “the best Christmas present ever”.
But Bernadette Smyth, founder and Director of pro-life group Precious Life, called them “extreme and draconian measures”. The group is considering an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
In October, MPs backed the introduction of similar zones around abortion clinics in England and Wales.
An amendment to the Government’s Public Order Bill to outlaw the offering of prayer and advice to women outside of abortion clinics was accepted by 297 votes to 110. Under the proposals, anyone found guilty of breaching the rules could face six months in prison.
Some councils have already introduced censorship zones, where speaking using amplification, audibly praying, reciting Scripture, and even kneeling within a 150m radius of an abortion clinic have been prohibited. The nationwide proposals could also include private residences and even churches close to a clinic, meaning pro-life posters or adverts could not be displayed if they can be seen from the street.
A consultation on similar proposals for legislation in Scotland closed in August.