FSRH and RCOG respond to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s consultation on the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill
Date: 16 Nov 2021
Type: FSRH Consultation Responses
The Northern Ireland Assembly is consulting on the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill, which would establish Safe Access Zones for premises providing abortion care and/or information, advice or counselling on abortion care. The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) have serious concerns over the ongoing intimidation and harassment of patients and staff outside facilities providing abortion care in Northern Ireland. We have - for several years - supported proposals to establish Safe Access Zones outside clinics providing these services across the UK.
In our joint response, we focus on the need to protect the rights of women in Northern Ireland to health, physical integrity, non-discrimination and privacy when accessing abortion – an essential and legal form of healthcare. We support the introduction of Safe Access Zones around healthcare facilities offering abortion care through national legislation. We believe this is the only way to offer women attending for abortion care the protection to which they are entitled.
We strongly support the approach set out in the Bill to establish Safe Access Zones for premises providing abortion services, including the need for the definition of ‘premises’ to include those providing abortion treatment and those where information, advice or counselling about abortion treatments are provided.
Key points in our joint response:
- Since the introduction of Early Medical Abortion services in Northern Ireland in April 2020, two Health and Social Care (HSC) Trusts have been forced to move the location of their services because of the intimidation and fear staff and patients felt (Northern and Southern HSC Trusts). Another HSC Trust has had to recruit additional security, resulting in a security presence at the front door / entrance (Belfast HSC Trust).
- We believe current legislative tools in Northern Ireland and other areas of the UK, including Public Spaces Protection Orders, are unable to provide adequate protection for women seeking abortion and for staff members. They create a postcode lottery where some women are unable to access care without harassment. They are expensive to introduce and uphold in court, and have a finite life of 3 years.
- We strongly support the approach set out in the Bill to establish Safe Access Zones for premises providing abortion services, including the need for the definition of ‘premises’ to include those providing abortion treatment and those where information, advice or counselling about abortion treatments are provided.
- The Bill states that each individual application will need to determine the precise geographical area of the Safe Access Zone. In order to save the administrative time and expense required by each facility to determine the geographic area required, we would instead support a standard 150-metre radius around health facilities providing abortion care if required (unless a specific request for a different-sized radius was put forward by a facility).
- We would support the expansion of the description of ‘criminalised actions’ to include wider activities which may cause distress to women accessing services and healthcare professionals providing care, including any protest or pavement interference in relation to abortion such as the handing out of leaflets, vigils, prayers, the erection of signs, use of sound amplification and projection of images.
- We would recommend that the monitoring of the effectiveness of Safe Access Zones should be a robust process, based on specific criteria developed in partnership with those providing abortion care in Northern Ireland. Data should be collected from all healthcare facilities with a Safe Access Zone in place.
You can read our response in full here.