THE UK Supreme Court has ruled that a bill to ban anti-abortion protests at Northern Ireland health clinics does not interfere with protestors' rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly.
The Abortion (Safe Access Zones) (Northern Ireland) Bill, which was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly on 24 March 2022, with the aim of protecting the right of women to access abortion and associated sexual and reproductive health services.
The Bill prohibits anti-abortion protests and other specified within "safe access zones" around abortion clinics and related premises.
Clause 5(2)(a) of the Bill makes it a criminal offence "to do an act in a safe access zone with the intent of, or reckless as to whether it has the effect of... influencing a protected person, whether directly or indirectly".
The persons protected by the clause include patients, persons accompanying them, and staff who work at the premises where abortion services are provided.
Northern Ireland is the first part of the UK to bring such legislation into place.
The Bill was delayed from becoming law after the NI attorney general intervened in May to ask Supreme Court judges to determine whether the clause disproportionately interfered with the rights of people protesting against abortion.
The Supreme Court unanimously held that clause 5(2)(a) of the Bill is compatible with the Convention rights of those who seek to express their opposition to the provision of abortion treatment services in Northern Ireland.
Supreme Court president Lord Reed said the bill had a "legitimate aim" and while it restricted the exercise of protesters' rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, the restrictions could be justified.
Judgment has been handed down this morning in the case UKSC 2022/0077 - Reference by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland - Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Northern Ireland) Bill https://t.co/zCjtwJL3Tq pic.twitter.com/nKV0Mqi6k5
— UK Supreme Court (@UKSupremeCourt) December 7, 2022
"It seeks to ensure that women have access to advice and treatment relating to the lawful termination of pregnancy under conditions which respect their privacy and dignity, thereby protecting public health," he said.
"It is also designed to enable staff who work at abortion clinics and related premises to attend their place of work without being intimidated, harassed or abused.
"Furthermore, the right to access health care in conditions of privacy and dignity, and the right to pursue employment, are protected by article 8 of the Convention. That right entails a positive obligation which requires states to enable pregnant women to exercise their right of access to lawful abortion services effectively, without being hindered or harmed by protesters in the ways described in the evidence before the Court."
Thirdly, the court ruled that the restrictions imposed are proportionate.
"Clause 5(2)(a) is not unduly restrictive: rather, it is rational and necessary if the Bill is to achieve its intended aims," he said.
The court acknowledged that the context in which the case is being taken is a "highly sensitive one" and that women who wish to access lawful abortion services "have a reasonable expectation of being able to do so without being confronted by protest activity designed to challenge and diminish their autonomy and undermine their resolve."
Protestors are also free to continue to protest anywhere else they please, it ruled.
Women and staff attending clinics are a "captive audience" when protests take place I the immediate vicinity of a clinic, and the Bill also intends to implement the UK's obligations to eliminate discrimination against women.
The maximum penalty for an offence under clause 5 is a fine of up to £500.
The legislation can now go on to become law, but it is not clear how long it will take to implement.
Sinn Féin MLA Emma Sheerin has welcomed the decision by the Supreme Court.
The Mid Ulster MLA said:
“The Supreme Court has today recognised that Safe Access Zones, and legislation passed by the Assembly, does not breach people’s right to protest.
“Patients and their families should not face harassment and intimidation when accessing healthcare.
“This is a progressive step forward to protect women and healthcare workers.”
The Supreme Court ruling today on buffer zones is historic for reproductive rights.
A huge well done to my Green colleague @ClurBailey. We can now progress at pace buffer zones in Scotland. https://t.co/lb48inN4ie
— Gillian Mackay MSP (@GillianMacMSP) December 7, 2022
A member of the Scottish Greens called today "a truly historic day," as she hopes to introduce similar legislation in Scotland.
Speaking after the verdict was read, Gillian Mackay MSP said the ruling "will provide vital and much needed protections."
“Abortion rights are healthcare, and this sets a crucial precedent for the introduction of my Bill to introduce buffer zones in Scotland.
“The 12,000 responses that I received for my consultation show the strength of feeling. All over the world, anti-choice activists are trying to crackdown on abortion rights. We can’t stand still, and must always be looking to entrench and expand those rights.
“Nobody should be obstructed or harassed when accessing healthcare, yet, all across Scotland, people are being forced to endure a gauntlet of graphic images and abuse when accessing abortion services.
“This is totally wrong and I look forward to the day when my Bill will end such shameful scenes for good.”