Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill

12.11.2021 | Church in Society, Statements, Public Affairs

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) has responded to the call made by the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Health for written evidence on the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill. In their submission, the Church states that there must be space within society to express views with which others may disagree. At the same time, it also says there are activities and behaviours that should not be part of any legitimate protest.

The private members’ bill, proposed by Green Party MLA, Clare Bailey, seeks to create safe access zones outside premises providing abortion services, including information, advice or counselling.

Rev Daniel Kane, Convener of PCI’s Council for Public Affairs (pictured), said, “As a Church with a strong pro-life position, we put on record again our total opposition to the abortion laws that were imposed upon the people of Northern Ireland, removing all protection from the lives of unborn children as a result of some of the most liberal abortion legislation in Europe.

“We recognise the matters reflected in this Bill are not only sensitive, but cut across the lives and personal experiences of women and their families who have experienced a crisis pregnancy situation in the past, or who may do so in the future. This is not simply a theological or academic exercise for us, as many of our ministers, and others in congregations, have journeyed alongside women and families who have experienced a pregnancy crisis and been presented with very difficult decisions.

“As a Church we are actively considering how we can better support women and their families who face these challenges. We deplore any situation that would compound anyone’s distress,” he said.

“The broad scope of this Bill, however, gives us considerable concern with regard to the potential for restricting freedom of expression and interference with the freedom of religious belief and conviction. In any democratic society there should be freedom to protest, and freedom to share opinion in a reasonable, lawful and peaceful manner.”

Mr Kane continued, “Of course there are activities and behaviours that should not be part of any legitimate protest. For example, this might include images so graphic and explicit that cause distress to people who may be seeking access to a venue that provides for abortions, or information and advice, or those who work in other parts of the same building and even passers-by.

“Physically impeding a person should also not be part of reasonable freedom of expression, or a display of freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Neither should the recording of images – either photographs or video recordings – be deemed to be an appropriate, or reasonable form of protest,” he said.

“The Bill does not seek to differentiate, however, between those individuals acting properly, lawfully and in a sensitive and appropriate fashion, and those who are engaged in conduct which undoubtedly is offensive and involves harassment and intimidation.”

Mr Kane concluded by saying, “The risk here is that the Bill does not merely propose to inhibit harassment and intimidation and the wrongful actions of third parties interfering with a legal right to access abortion services. It may have the effect of restricting any conduct, no matter how benign, within a ‘safe access zone’ on the grounds that it would amount to a criminal offence. In our submission we have encouraged the Committee to consider whether existing legislative provision, properly enforced, provides the remedies sought.”

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