The private members’ bill, which was brought by Green Party leader Clare Bailey, was passed by 55 votes to 29, prompting a round of applause in the public gallery.
Pro-life activists had campaigned hard to get a 30th MLA to oppose the bill in the hope of blocking it with a Petition of Concern - which requires 30 signatures - however it was not to be.
Ms Bailey said: “The deliberate and concerted campaign of harassment and intimidation against women has to stop. During my time as a volunteer with the Marie Stopes clinic, I was spat at, splashed with holy water, called a murderer, and watched a woman run into oncoming traffic to escape these people. This needs to stop, this is not protest as I understand it.”
But DUP Alderman John Finlay expressed “disgust” that not only did the UUP refuse to support a petition of concern - but that the party actively voted for the bill.
“Once again, the Ulster Unionist Party has totally failed the most vulnerable members of our society,” he said. “They had it in their power in the Assembly today to ensure the failure of Clare Bailey’s Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill... but they chose not to. Instead, they voted for the Bill.”
Pro-life group Precious Life announced they will launch a legal challenge. Spokeswoman Bernie Smyth said the new law denies the human rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. “The ultimate ‘safe zone’ for unborn babies should be in their mothers’ wombs,” she said, adding that her group’s “peaceful vigils will continue” outside abortion centres.
The developments came on the day the UK Government announced its intention to prepare work on further regulations to ensure abortion services are available for women and girls in NI. Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has set out the legislative options being explored in a written ministerial statement however he has been criticised by both pro-choice and anti-abortion lobbies.
DUP MLA Peter Weir said his party, which takes a pro-life stance, said it was “unacceptable” that Westminster is “legislating over the heads of the people of Northern Ireland”.
Amnesty International said Mr Lewis “missed his own target”, having previously indicated he would intervene if the Executive missed the March 2022 deadline to roll out services.
The Government said it is taking the step as it is becoming “increasingly clear that the Northern Ireland Department of Health will miss the deadline of the end of March to ensure abortion services in Northern Ireland are commissioned in full”.
Abortion laws in NI were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when the Assembly was suspended by Sinn Fein. However, while individual health trusts have been offering services on an ad-hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services. The new regulations would place a further duty on the department to make abortion services available as soon as is reasonably practicable.
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.
With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.
Subscribe to newsletter.co.uk and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.newsletter.co.uk/subscriptions now to sign up.
Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.