On one of Belfast’s busiest streets, Clare Bailey is blinking away tears. Looking up at signage attached to a lamp-post around the corner from an NHS clinic providing abortions, she breaks into a smile. Her daughter, Jude, insists on taking her photograph.
It is seven years since Bailey, a former Northern Ireland Green Party leader and Assembly member, tabled a Private Members’ Bill at Stormont calling for the introduction of so-called buffer zones to prevent anti-abortion protests and harassment outside healthcare facilities offering terminations.
On Friday, a law on “safe access zones” has come into force in Northern Ireland – the first of its kind in the UK.
“It hasn’t sunk in; my head can’t take it in,” says Bailey while reading a sign showing a colour-coded map of city centre areas close to the College Street clinic where protests are no longer legal.
“I’ve mixed emotions. While it’s great to see this happening, I know this is not the endgame. You’re just waiting to see what the next iteration of these protests will be. But it’s still hugely significant. I’m really proud we’ve done it and been the first not just on these islands, but most of Europe.”
Signs have been erected in eight zones across the North’s five health trusts to “protect women and girls accessing abortion services, information, advice and counselling, and protect staff working at these locations”.
Under the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Act (Northern Ireland) – passed at Stormont last year before the collapse of the powersharing government – it is now illegal for people to be “impeded, recorded, influenced or to be caused harassment, alarm or distress” within the zones which can cover between 100m and 150m from entrances or exits of designated healthcare facilities providing lawful abortions. It is a criminal offence to hold protests in these areas, punishable by a fine of up to £500.
Bailey’s experience working as a volunteer with the former Marie Stopes private abortion clinic in Belfast, which closed in 2017, spurred her into campaigning for legislative change: “I’ve been spat on, I’ve been abused, I’ve been threatened and physically assaulted when I escorted women in and out of Marie Stopes,” she says. “I had one young woman run into four lanes of oncoming traffic to try and get away from these people. So I know exactly what’s been going on and the impact that it has.”
Less than 24 hours earlier, a woman carrying a placard reading “Abortion is Murder” stood close to the front door of the College Street clinic as two other protesters placed posters at the entrance; one featured a pink heart with the words ‘We’re here for you’.
Asked how they felt about the law change to prevent their actions, one woman said: “We don’t do interviews”, before adding, “we’re here to pray”.
By lunchtime on Thursday, almost 20 people had gathered with anti-abortion placards outside the redbrick building, which also operates as a sexual and reproductive health centre providing contraception and counselling. Two teenage girls walked quickly into the healthcare facility with their heads bowed.
A woman shouted at the protesters as she walked down the street on her lunchbreak. “I just feel angry,” she says. “I had an abortion when I was 19. For me it was the right thing to do. I feel sorry for young vulnerable women walking in there.”
Set up in April 2020 following the relaxation of the North’s strict abortion laws by Westminster six months earlier during a period of Stormont collapse, the College Street service provides early medical abortions (limited to nine weeks and six days of pregnancy). A full roll-out of services, including surgical terminations up to 23 weeks and six days, is due before the end of the year.
Since abortion was legalised in the Northern Ireland, demand has been high. More than 4,000 terminations were carried out between 2020 and last year.
Dr Laura McLaughlin, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist who cofounded Doctors for Choice NI, worked in the College Street premises when it first opened in April 2020, just a month after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For her, the importance of the safe access zones “can’t be [overstated]”.
“Deciding to go through with an abortion is not easy. This is made harder by people yelling and screaming at you as you’re walking in – particular somewhere like College Street, which an actual sexual reproductive clinic,” she says. “There are multiple other things going on. Other women are using the service for things [including miscarriages], which are just as distressing for them.”
Protests escalated outside the Belfast facility after pandemic restrictions eased, resulting in a security guard being employed by the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, which runs the clinic.
In a letter to the Stormont health committee in November 2021, the trust’s chief executive, Dr Cathy Jack, wrote about protesters “blocking the entrance, harassing and upsetting clients and staff” by “chanting, throwing holy water, following people up the street into their car ... and wearing bodycams, threatening to stream footage online”.
Dr McLaughlin singled out the campaigning work of Bailey, who left politics after losing her seat in last year’s Assembly election.
“It was a long, hard-fought battle by Clare Bailey. We owe her immensely and the patients who use the service owe her immensely,” she says.
“Having these zones in place will protect the patients needing to access abortion services. It also gives the staff support to continue to do what they’re doing. They would do it anyway.
“Crucially, it further legitimises what is essential healthcare and what is now legal in Northern Ireland.”