MLA hits out at ‘distinct lack of urgency’ over legislation making its way through Stormont
The Department of Health has come under fire for failing to “undertake due diligence” as it prepares for proposed legislation to introduce safe access zones outside abortion clinics.
Sinn Fein MLA Colm Gildernew said he had detected “a distinct lack of preparation and urgency” from officials around solutions for potential issues including buffer zones to protect women seeking terminations from abuse and harassment.
A departmental official told the Stormont health committee that limited work had been undertaken to examine how buffer zones operated in other parts of the world.
A second official said that resources were being concentrated on developing a properly commissioned abortion service from March 31 next year.
The identity of the officials was withheld after it emerged one of their colleagues had received a threat as a direct result of their work on the introduction of safe zones.
It is believed to be the first time such a measure has been put in place to ensure the safety of officials appearing in front of a Stormont committee.
Responding to their evidence, committee chair Mr Gildernew said: “I’m not sure we’re seeing the sense of urgency with the department in terms of a bill that’s coming through the Assembly that is seeking to [create] safe access zones to provide protection to people seeking to access health services.
“Is there a view in the department that there’s no need to undertake this type of due diligence?
“The commissioning process is one thing, and is an important thing.
“I will just note in terms of the pressure you are outlining on the commissioning service that the minister decided to suspend those arrangements and that preparatory work and then resumed it in June.
“However, there is legislation in front of us here on the issue of protecting women and providing safe zones.
“That needs to be taken and addressed seriously, alongside the commissioning
”It’s not one or the other. It’s a case of having the commissioned services, but also having them available to women and girls in a way that is safe and appropriate and where they are not being subjected to some of the horrendous abuse this committee has already heard about.
“I do want to send that message, very clearly, that I detect a very distinct lack of preparation for implementing this legislation, should it be passed.”
The officials delivered the briefing as a Private Member’s Bill on the issue moves through the Assembly.
Last week, the committee heard from a number of health trust representatives including one medic who told how a patient with a terminal cancer diagnosis had been branded a “murderer” by protesters.
This happened as she was entering a clinic for a termination that would allow her to start treatment and prolong her life.
Green Party leader Clare Bailey, who brought the Private Member’s Bill to the Assembly following her experience as a chaperone outside a Belfast city centre family planning clinic, said: “This is a further reminder of the deliberate campaign of intimidation and harassment directed at women accessing reproductive healthcare across Northern Ireland.
“The Safe Access Zones Bill is a vital piece of legislation to ensure that women’s right to access healthcare is protected.”