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Enforcement of safe access zones to abortion clinics “must balance competing rights”


a senior police official said competing human rights must be balanced in enforcing the proposed safe access zones around abortion clinics in Northern Ireland

Green Party MP Clare Bailey proposed the legislation, describing a “campaign of harassment and intimidation” outside the facilities by anti-abortion activists as having “escalated” in recent months.

Restrictive abortion laws in Northern Ireland were liberalized in 2019, but service provision has yet to be fully rolled out in the region amid a political dispute over this very sensitive issue.

Ms Bailey’s private member’s bill is currently being considered by Stormont’s health committee.

Clare Bailey, leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland (Liam McBurney / PA) / AP Archives

Committee chairman Colm Gildernew said there are similar laws in Canada in parts of Australia and the United States, while Ireland is considering proposals.

Chief Superintendent Melanie Jones told the committee that the vast majority of incidents include posting graphic images, handing out leaflets, bordering on aggressive tactics to try to influence people around their choices.

She said there were also “nasty name-calling, accusatory behavior,” people “quite confrontational and entering into people’s personal space,” and a reluctance to back down.

Chief Superintendent Jones said she would advise “careful consideration of the competing human rights at stake.”

She said the right to respect for private and family life would apply to clinic staff and those accessing services, while protesters could assert the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. as well as freedom of expression and assembly.

The officer said she could see potential loopholes in the legislation, including that it could be very difficult to refute a lack of knowledge of protesters around the extent of the safe zone as the app was not possible only against repeat offenders.

“This then means that their activity would have to be tolerated for a certain period of time, which could have a negative impact on people who went there for treatment or to work there,” she told MPs.

She also observed that within the execution section, there is no obligation for people removed from the security zone to provide their personal information to the police.

PSNI Senior Superintendent Melanie Jones (Rebecca Black / PA) / AP Archives

“It is a problem if people come into that safe zone and continue to behave the same… unless it’s the same officers in the same place and at the same time,” she said.

Chief Superintendent Jones also raised the resource implications for the police.

“Protests of this nature can be frequent and spontaneous and be protracted, and effective policing would likely require a continued police presence throughout the duration of such activity both to ensure that we have surveillance and collection in place. of evidence, to prevent a breach of the peace. and also to reassure those who work and access services, ”she said.

She also said she believed it would be naïve to think that the application of the legislation if passed would not be subject to legal challenge.

DUP MP Pam Cameron asked how many police hours the law would require.

Chief Superintendent Jones said it would increase police demands, but it was difficult to say without knowing how many premises would require a safe zone.

She suggested that most protest rallies are “fairly compliant” and that enforcement could fall to street guards or other statutory resources.

Sinn Fein MP Caral Ni Chuilin expressed concern that a person accessing services would “almost need to complain” that they feel harassed for the execution.

She said she spoke to women who had miscarried and called murderers and showed graphic images while accessing fertility services, and described the experience as “horrible.”

Ms. Bailey also testified at a later committee meeting.

She said women’s right to health care was not being respected at the moment, adding that her bill sought to ensure safe and unhindered access to health care.

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