Northern Irish buffer zones bill backed by Supreme Court, paving way for Scottish equivalent

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Buffer zones can be established around abortion clinics in Northern Ireland, the Supreme Court has ruled, paving the way for Scotland to bring in equivalent legislation.

Gillian Mackay, the Scottish Green MSP, lodged a member’s Bill in Holyrood earlier this year to bring in buffer zones in Scotland. However, the Scottish Government were keen to see the result of the Supreme Court case involving Northern Irish legislation before throwing the full weight of the Government behind the bill.

The Supreme Court ruled the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Northern Ireland) Bill did not disproportionately interfere with the rights of protesters, a ruling that sets a “crucial precedent” for Scotland, Ms Mackay said.

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Ms Mackay said: “This is a very welcome decision and a truly historic day for reproductive rights. It 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”.

Nicola Sturgeon has committed to working with Ms Mackay around the topic of access of women to abortion services. This work will likely now be accelerated.

Gillian Mackay, the Scottish Green MSP, has a member's bill backing buffer zones around abortion clinics.Gillian Mackay, the Scottish Green MSP, has a member's bill backing buffer zones around abortion clinics.
Gillian Mackay, the Scottish Green MSP, has a member's bill backing buffer zones around abortion clinics.

Lord Advocate, Dorothy Bain KC, argued during the court case that interfering with rights relating to freedom of expression was “justified” to protect the rights of women.

Scotland’s women’s health minister Maree Todd said the Government would engage with Ms Mackay on her Bill “as soon as possible” following the ruling, saying she was “extremely pleased” by the judgement.

“We are currently carefully considering the UK Supreme Court’s judgment and will be discussing it with Gillian Mackay MSP and what it means for taking her Bill forward as soon as possible,” she said. “We’re committed to safeguarding access to all healthcare without intimidation for women in Scotland.”

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Dame Brenda King, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, had referred a clause in the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill to the Supreme Court after it was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly in March.

She argued the clause did not provide for a “defence of reasonable excuse” and asked the court to consider whether it was a “proportionate interference” with the rights of “those who wish to express opposition to abortion services in Northern Ireland”.

In a unanimous ruling, a panel of seven justices concluded the clause was not incompatible with the rights to freedom of conscience, assembly and expression of protesters, enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights, and therefore was not beyond Stormont’s powers.

Giving the lead ruling, the court’s president Lord Reed said: “The right of women in Northern Ireland to access abortion services has now been established in law through the processes of democracy."

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