A Bill to create safe spaces around abortion clinics in Northern Ireland has moved closer to becoming law.
The private members’ bill, which has been brought by Green Party leader Clare Bailey, was debated by MLAs in Stormont on Monday.
A final stage debate and vote is set to take place on March 22.
The bill has been vociferously opposed by DUP MLAs and TUV leader Jim Allister, who have claimed it could criminalise protesters and is unnecessary with existing public order laws.
Mr Allister on Monday said the bill would create a “very sweeping” and “absolutist” office that would be “totalitarian” in nature.
Ms Bailey, who previously worked with a Marie Stopes clinic, told MLAs that the bill was “urgently needed”.
She said: “It is not nor has it ever been my intention to unnecessarily criminalise anyone by this bill. The offence outlined in this bill is narrow in scope, despite what some have tried to allege. This bill does not ban protest, it does not ban silent prayer.
“It simply regulates behaviours that are targeting women, attempting to stop them accessing lawfully available healthcare and information.”
Concluding the debate in the Assembly, she said: “This legislation is urgently needed. I hope those who don’t realise it yet can begin to understand that.”
Ms Bailey said that she understood some of the concerns raised by Mr Allister regarding the right to protest.
But she said: “I have watched vulnerable women run into oncoming traffic to avoid the deliberate targeting of them accessing services.
“This bill seeks to be a proactive bill to prevent harm happening – not a reactive bill to deal with harm, once it has happened.”
During the short debate, DUP MLA Pam Cameron said that legal concerns remain “unaddressed”.
While she said that patients and staff at healthcare facilities should never be subject to abuse, she warned: “This bill will not have the impact supporters’ believe it will have and will almost certainly result in protracted legal action.”