Green Party: Abortion clinic no-protest zones ‘are not a risk to freedom of speech’

The Green Party has firmly rejected pro-life claims that the party’s plans to create ‘no protest zones’ around NI abortion clinics would set a dangerous precedent for the suppression of freedom of speech, association and religion.

Thursday, 14th October 2021, 4:00 am
Updated Thursday, 14th October 2021, 11:56 am
A pro-life protest 'March for Their Lives' in Belfast city centre in September 2019. Photo: Bill Smyth

The debate comes after the assembly passed a private member’s bill from Green leader Clare Bailey to its second stage. It will, if passed, create protest exclusion zones outside NI abortion clinics and redefine some criminal offences within them. Ms Bailey told MLAs on Tuesday how she had been assaulted and spat on by protestors while working as a volunteer outside a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast in 2017.

But Mark Lambe of the pro-life group Abolish Abortion NI, was sceptical about how common such abuse is. “We have volunteers outside abortion clinics quite consistently for the past year and we have never seen such abuse,” he said. Such buffer zones are currently in use at abortion clinics in Ealing, London and Manchester, he said.

“At Ealing protestors are limited to around four, they must stand 100 metres away from the clinic and their placards are limited to A3 size. They are also forbidden from prayer or using sound amplification. We believe this is a dangerous blueprint that sets a very concerning precedent for wider restrictions on civil liberties.”

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However a Green Party spokesman said the bill was not intended to restrict any freedoms. “Generally there are a lot of incidents of women trying to access healthcare feeling very intimidated and harassed,” he said. “Clare Bailey has spoken of her first hand experience of being spat at and assaulted.

“We are very clear this legislation is not about restricting the right to protest - it is about ensuring people are able to access healthcare unimpeded,” he said. “If people want to protest the law on abortion they can do so outside Stormont or at the Commons, but it is important that healthcare is protected.”

Abolish Abortion NI believes that existing legislation is adquate to prevent harrassment of people at abortion clinics.

However the Green Party says the current definition of harassment requires there to be two or more incidents, which it says is inadquate if someone is visiting a clinic just once.

The Green Party spokesman said the party’s bill would create new list of criminal offences within a zone, including “harassment, intimidation or undue influence, or any attempt to protest or affect the decision of protected people”.

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