The Belfast Trust has had to pay to put in security measures to protect staff and patients at its early medical abortion facility.
Dr Cathy Jack, chief executive of the trust, has told the Stormont health committee she has had to place security guards at the building as a result of intimidation by anti-abortion protesters.
It is one of a string of steps she is taking, including putting in reinforced windows and front door and security cameras outside the building.
Chief executives from the Southern, South Eastern and Northern health trusts also told MLAs they have had to move their abortion services on some occasions as a result of protests by pro-life campaigners.
The details came to light as chief executives from all the trusts, except the Western Trust where early medical abortions are currently unavailable due to a lack of resources, gave evidence on a proposed DUP bill to reduce access to abortion in Northern Ireland.
First Minister Paul Givan has brought a private member’s bill seeking to repeal a specific provision within abortion regulations that allows terminations up to birth in cases of serious non-fatal disabilities.
Dr Jack told committee members: “My staff recognise that peaceful protest is an absolute right and should be allowed, but I don’t think it is a comfortable way for individuals to have to access their work, or to be concerned or worried about patient welfare.
“And I have to tell you that I have had two incident reports since we started this service regarding the protesters and I do know that many patients report that they are worried in an already anxious and stressful situation for them and I fundamentally believe that no-one should feel intimidated by any protest.
“But we have put on extra security, there is a security presence at the front door, we have put in special glass in the windows, we’re now putting in special glass into the front door, we are installing an outside security camera and I would like to thank the PSNI who have been very helpful on occasions where it has been necessary.
“Would I like to have had to have done that? No, I would prefer to spend that money differently and for betterment of patient and service user experience in a different way, but it has been a necessity for me.”
Dr Jack also told the committee the trust has dealt with two incident reports regarding the protesters outside the early medical abortion service.
She later accepted that the majority of protests were peaceful in response to a question from the DUP’s Jonathan Buckley, who said: “For me, healthcare resources should be focused on saving lives and not taking life, I’m very, very clear on that.
“People do have a right to protest against abortion services in a respectful and peaceful way and there have been allegations of harassment against staff and patients and, of course, where criminal offences have taken place, these should be reported to the PSNI.
“However, the presence of protest and opposition is protected under the European Convention of Human Rights and isn’t illegal.
“Would it be fair to say that the majority of those protesting against the operation of abortion service do so peacefully and what grounds have the PSNI had cause to physically remove individuals from trust sites in the incidents you have outlined?”
Dr Jack said: “We have been running this service in the centre of Belfast since the end of April 2020 and I have told you there have only been two incident reports, so I think that makes it very clear that the vast majority of these protests are peaceful and respectful and we have no problem with that.
“But I think it is right and proper that I point out that there have been two, they are very small in number when you consider that it is well over a year, but equally, it is important that we recognise that and that I have had to put resource into improving security for those that use the service and those that work there.”
It also emerged during the session that the Northern Trust was this week forced to move its family planning service to an alternative location after police were called in to quell tensions between protesters and members of the public.
“We have been concerned about the service and made a decision to move it, yet again, and it moved yesterday,” said Jennifer Welsh, chief executive of the Northern Trust.
“It is an alternative location where we can better provide for a buffer zone and it took place peacefully without any incident.
“We are hopeful that will remain the case and I’m not going to disclose that location.”
Following the evidence session, the committee agreed to write to the Department of Health, PSNI Chief Constable and Policing Board to outline its concerns at claims of intimidation by anti-abortion protesters outside health centres.