A law to introduce safe access zones outside abortion clinics would not stop pro-life campaigners from taking part in public protests, Northern Ireland’s human rights commissioner has said.
Alyson Kilpatrick said proposed exclusion zones would allow anti-abortion protests to continue but without causing distress to women and girls seeking to access healthcare.
Ms Kilpatrick was briefing the Stormont health committee on Tuesday afternoon on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission position on a private members bill which seeks to make it illegal to protest or hold demonstrations inside exclusion zones.
“This bill doesn’t prevent anyone from protesting about anything and it certainly doesn’t prevent anyone from protesting or complaining about their opposition to abortion,” she said.
“They can use the media, they can use various other platforms, they can campaign and protest outside decision makers’ premises and, in fact, this bill also allows them to protest relatively near to abortion clinics.
“What it doesn’t allow is for them to invade the space and upset necessarily and disproportionately people wanting to avail of the service.
“They absolutely have every right to say they disagree, but they do not have the right to impose that on other people in the process of accessing the service.”
The private members bill has been brought to Stormont by Clare Bailey, Green Party leader, following her own experience volunteering as a chaperone outside a family planning clinic in Belfast.
It also follows reports that health trusts have been forced to move the location of family planning services and put in place security measures to protect staff and patients using facilities where abortions are offered.
However, pro-life campaigners have claimed they are simply offering counselling, advice and prayer to women seeking an abortion.
DUP MLA Pam Cameron asked Ms Kilpatrick whether Stormont should consider strengthening current laws instead of putting in place new legislation to address the issue.
However, Ms Kilpatrick said the laws in place do not offer patients adequate protection from the threat of harassment by anti-abortion campaigners.
“It wouldn’t cover, for example, counselling or offers of support immediately outside a service,” she said.
“That wouldn’t be called harassment, but for a woman who is in the process of accessing that service and has not requested consultation or indeed to meet anybody or reveal her identity to anybody at the time, that would be very detrimental to her emotional well-being and that’s the evidence we have heard.
“That may not fall within the legal definition of harassment under the current law, but it is something which would come into play in that very moment when someone is trying to access a service in those very difficult, sensitive moments.
“The two laws don’t really substitute for each other, the law on harassment away from a service would be different to the law on accessing a service by a woman who is exercising her Article 8 right.
“Protection from harassment order as drafted or even as amended wouldn’t deal with the situation that is under review here.
“It couldn’t be used to enable women to go to an abortion service with dignity and privacy.
“The laws as they are, I don’t see how you could amend the current laws to cover precisely this situation which is people in the process of accessing health service being offered consultation, prayer, having things shouted at them.
“The law as it stands or even strengthened would not apply in that very situation and it would be reactive rather than protective.
“I think the key here is a woman has to be free to access that service and if she is put off, it’s too late, the law doesn’t really protect her at all.
“This is about protecting somebody before they have to even encounter the potential of taking a suit or proving harassment. It is prevention rather than cure.”
She added: “We believe the appropriate balance has been struck in this bill subject to minor considerations and clarity and guidance.”