24 May 2022, The Tablet

Northern Ireland abortion protest ban on hold

The proposed ban would hit campaigners with a fine of up to £2500.

Northern Ireland abortion protest ban on hold

A pro-life demonstrator holds a placard during the March For Life rally in London May 11, 2019.
CNS photo/Peter Nicholls, Reuters

A planned ban on pro-life campaigners holding vigils, protests or counselling outside abortion clinics in Northern Ireland has been put on hold while the UK supreme court decides whether the legislation breaches human rights law. 

A statement issued by the office of the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, Brenda King detailed that “The Attorney has asked the Supreme Court to consider whether the offence created by Clause 5(2)(a) of the Abortion Services Bill, which does not provide for a defence of reasonable excuse, is a proportionate interference with the rights of those who wish to express opposition to abortion services in Northern Ireland.”

The statement also said that the Bill may prove incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights - which would place it beyond the legal remit of Stormont. The proposed ban would attach a fine of up to £2500 to actions “which might influence a person in their decision to attend” an appointment at an abortion provider. Passed by 58 votes to 29 at the Northern Irish Assembly in October 2021, the bill was introduced as a result of the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland in 2019.

On May 19, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland submitted a written statement to Parliament stating that he had approved new powers which allow him to speed up the widespread commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland. Brandon Lewis MP stated that he is “determined to ensure that women and girls in Northern Ireland can access abortion services in the same way as those living in the rest of the United Kingdom.”

Exclusion zones around abortion providers - and whether they are compatible with human rights law - has proven an issue in other parts of the UK. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, has responded to campaigners for exclusion zones this year by citing European Human Rights law. When challenged on her delay on introducing a ban, Sturgeon said: “On all legislation we have to ensure that legislation is ECHR compliant and when you are, as some people would say, interfering in the right to protest there’s just a complex legal issue that we have to work our way through.”

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