Derry MLA complains over 'intimdiation' while supporting safe access zones at abortion service providers
A Derry MLA complained of a 'weekly show of intimidation' at a health facility while speaking in support of safe access zones for premises providing abortion services in the north.
SDLP MLA Sinéad McLaughlin joined members of Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, People Before Profit and her own party who spoke in support of Green MLA Claire Bailey's Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill which passed second stage at Stormont this week. Independent MLA Claire Sugden also supported the Bill.
The Bill, if passed, will require the Department of Health to establish safe access zones for premises providing abortion services and will criminalise acts within 'a safe access zone which may have the effect of preventing or impeding access to the premises, or influencing, harassing, alarming or distressing persons accessing the premises'.
Speaking in support of the Bill Ms. McLaughlin told MLA that at one health care facility 'there is a weekly show of intimidation'.
"I have repeatedly raised the issue with the PSNI, and its response is always the same: it acknowledges the hurt that the behaviour causes to members of our community, but it does not have the legal powers to act on it.
"That is why the Bill is so vital: it lays down provisions that will help to protect people from these extremists — and they are extremists. I know that many Members who identify as 'pro-life' would certainly distance themselves from their behaviour."
She said women accessing services had to run a gauntlet of graphic images and verbal abuse.
"The shouting of slogans and the use of graphic imagery that distorts reality cause real psychological damage. It needs to stop. None of us knows the circumstances of those entering the clinics. It could be a woman who has suffered a miscarriage. It could be someone who is undergoing chemotherapy and is, sadly, infertile.
"It could be a woman whose baby was stolen in one of the mother-and-baby homes. Those are all traumatic experiences that could be painfully raked up by the actions of the people protesting outside our healthcare centres.
"The sad irony is that, even though the Western Trust's early medical abortion service has been suspended for six months now, the anti-abortion protests have continued to take place," she said.
Ms. Bailey, in moving the Bill, spoke of her own experience at a clinic.
"What is happening on our streets is a very deliberate campaign of harassment and intimidation against women. During my time there, I was spat at and assaulted, I had holy water splashed on me and I was verbally abused.
"I saw one young woman who was so distressed that she ran into four lanes of oncoming traffic to try to escape the protesters. Another young woman, who was alone in the city, was filmed and threatened that the footage would be uploaded and broadcast on social media. They also threatened to report the scenes to the police," she said.
The procedure of the bill was opposed, however, by both the DUP and Traditional Unionist Voice MLA Jim Allister.
Mr. Allister said he believed any harassment could adequately be dealt with under existing legislation.
"Under legislation that presently exists, most notably the Protection from Harassment Order 1997, harassment is already a criminal offence, and under the Public Order Order 1987, disorderliness and all that goes with it is already a criminal offence. Where is the necessity to duplicate in the Bill?" he asked.
Ms. Bailey said: "In my experience, the current harassment laws simply do not suffice. Under current harassment laws, we have to have the one person targeting the same person on two or more occasions, and that person then reporting it to the police. In my experience, anybody who is accessing particular services will not report harassment to the police because they want to maintain their confidentiality, and the police struggle to enforce current harassment laws."
DUP MLA Paula Bradley also said she believed harassment could be tackled using laws that are already in place.
"It is our view that the aim of punishing and deterring such behaviour on health and social care premises could be realised via existing mechanisms in a way that better defends the fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression.
"There should be an acknowledgement that a majority of local pro-life campaigners act within the law. Therefore, there needs to be a targeted and narrow focus on rooting out offending among the small number of individuals who engage in such vile, threatening or violent behaviour. That could include tightening the current law on harassment," she said.
Ms. Bradley also expressed reservations about Clause 6 of the Bill which sets out new offences within safe access zones of '(a) influencing a protected person, whether directly or indirectly, (b) preventing or impeding access by a protected person, or (c) causing harassment, alarm or distress to a protected person'.
She said: "There is no clarity about what is deemed to constitute direct or indirect influence and no definition of 'alarm or distress'.
"The clause also includes no requirement for offending to be threatening, abusive or violent. That threshold is stipulated in other important legislation, including that on domestic abuse and coercive control. Does that set the bar too low for prosecution?
"Moreover, if somebody is prosecuted, are the conditions in Clause 6 clear enough to make the offence operable by the courts?
"There is also the threat that the model would set a precedent for an unfair restriction of fundamental freedoms in other situations. For instance, if influencing a person via a pamphlet outside premises where pregnancy advice is provided is deemed a criminal offence, is the next step to ban the distribution of literature on any topic in any public place or private space on the basis that it may cause alarm?"
Responding to these reservations Ms. Bailey said: "Concerns were raised about the Bill's potential to set a precedent by rolling back or restricting other rights and freedoms. The example of giving out leaflets was used.
"That is an interesting example. Giving out leaflets sounds like a passive, pleasant pastime. For example, we all do it at elections. When you understand, however, that the leaflets are filled with misinformation and non-facts; that they are put forcibly into people's bags, pockets or hands; and that they claim all sorts of nonsense such as that abortion will not 'un-rape' you or that abortion will give you breast cancer, I hope that giving out leaflets can be seen as a bit more intimidatory, or even sinister, in some cases."
She equally said that she would work with MLAs to iron out any concerns around Clause 6 of the Bill.
"I will continue to listen to those concerns to see whether I can make clause 6 much more effective. If I can, I will be more than happy to have those conversations at any time. If the Bill is passed at this stage, I will continue to work on further scrutiny of the clause," she said.
Sinn Féin MLA Ciara Ferguson, did not speak in the debate, but welcomed progress on the legislation.
“There has been a concerted campaign of intimidation and harassment against patients accessing their right to healthcare over recent months.
“No one should be faced with the type of disturbing imagery which has been displayed at these protests – patients and healthcare workers should be protected.
“Many countries already have safe access zones, including Australia and Canada. It’s important that we have laws in place to protect women and ensure these protests do not take place outside hospitals.
“I welcome legislation discussed in the Assembly which will support the introduction of safe access zones for people seeking health care," she said.