An abortion rights rally in Belfast in 2012. Protestors carry signs bearing slogans such as "rich women have abortions, poor women have babies." "legalise not criminalise," and more.

What Scotland can learn from the Supreme Court ruling on Northern Ireland’s buffer zone law

Joe Higgins, Policy and Campaigns Officer

April 30, 2024

With buffer zones legislation making its way through Holyrood, our Policy and Campaigns Officer Joe explores a recent court decision in Northern Ireland that could have significant implications for MSPs debating the new law in Scotland.

This week, MSPs debated and agreed to the general principles of Gillian Mackay’s Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill. If passed, the bill will introduce 200-metre buffer zones around healthcare facilities that provide abortions in Scotland. Any behaviour that seeks to impede, distress, or influence people entering an abortion clinic would be criminalised within the “safe access zones.”

There is clear evidence of the negative impact of anti-abortion protests. However, opponents continue to argue that safe access zones unlawfully restrict protesters’ rights to freedom of religion, expression, and assembly. A recent UK Supreme Court ruling on a similar law passed in Northern Ireland provides important clarity on this point.

Following the passage of the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Northern Ireland) Bill in 2022, the Attorney General asked the UK Supreme Court to determine whether the law was compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The senior law officer was concerned that sections of the bill disproportionately interfered with protesters’ freedom of conscience, speech and assembly, protected under Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the ECHR. 

In a unanimous decision issued later that year, the Supreme Court ruled that the legislation was fully compatible with anti-abortion protesters’ convention rights. Their detailed legal analysis looked at the provision of protest-free safe access zones and its interaction with ECHR rights. In reaching its conclusion, the Supreme Court judges highlighted a number of important points:

For all these reasons, the Supreme Court ruled that protecting access to abortion services without harassment is a legitimate aim. It can be achieved in a proportionate way through safe access zones.

We are calling on MSPs to listen to the UK Supreme Court and vote Gillian Mackay’s Bill into law. Patients and staff need protection from intimidating and inappropriate anti-choice protests now.

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Image: Abortion rights rally, Belfast, 2012. C. Wikimedia/Creative Commons.

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