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The provision of safe access zones outside hospitals and other healthcare facilities was debated today at Stormont. The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill put forward by MLA Claire Bailey is at its second stage and it was debated at length today.

MLA Liz Kimmins has welcomed progress on legislation to establish safe access zones outside healthcare clinics to protect women.

Speaking during the debate Kimmins said "If passed, the Bill will go a long way to helping deal with issues that I have been dealing with in my constituency for almost a year now as a result of the huge impact of the protests outside healthcare facilities on the many people who have been in touch with me. The experiences that other Members have detailed in the debate, which have been very disturbing to listen to, are very similar to those that I been listening to from people across my constituency. What women have been subjected to is totally wrong, and it is a really sad state of affairs that, in 2021, we are having to put in place legislation to protect women who are trying to access safe and legal healthcare to ensure that they do not have to run the gauntlet of protestors during what is often a very traumatic time in their life. We would be having a very different conversation if we were talking about men —I know that that will not go down well. Not only do those protests have an impact on women accessing abortion, who have, for whatever reason, had to make that very difficult decision and are feeling very vulnerable but, in my experience, they have also had a profound impact on the wider public who are accessing healthcare facilities for a variety of reasons. We need to take urgent, appropriate action to address that issue. 

Speaking of protests in Newry The Newry and Armagh MLA said "As I mentioned, since the start of this year, we have witnessed protesters gathering at John Mitchel Place Health Centre in Newry and outside Daisy Hill Hospital. They carry placards depicting distressing images and slogans, and they harass staff and patients as they attempt to access those sites. Although those individuals claim to be trying to help people, that is certainly not the experience of those who have come into contact with the protests. I am yet to see, as my colleague mentioned, any evidence of the positive impacts of their behaviour or the protests at any healthcare facilities across the board. 

"I fully support the right to assemble and free speech, and I disagree with the notion that the Bill prevents any of that. Nor do I agree with DUP comments that the Bill may lead to the banning of the distribution of leaflets or other information. There are plenty of examples of where exclusion zones apply to lobbying and protesting outside facilities."

Kimmins continued "Both healthcare sites that I referenced offer a wide range of services, including services for children, young people, adults, older people, people with disabilities and people with mental health conditions. All have been subjected to images, slogans, harassment and abuse, which has caused them stress and anxiety as they tried to access the healthcare that they need. I say that with authority because I have spoken to a wide range of people. I will put that in context by sharing some of the real-life experiences of staff, patients, parents and other members of the public who have contacted me to highlight how they have been made to feel as a result of the distressing scenes that they have been faced with. In particular, I have received numerous messages from staff working across both sites, all of whom have personal stories. Some described how they were recorded going to and from work and had to ask protesters to allow them to make their way into the facilities. Others reported being subjected to verbal abuse and harassment by some of those individuals while trying to provide a vital service to the public. 

"It is important to remind Members across the House of how we, over the past 18 months in particular, have lauded the excellent work of health and social care staff and the sacrifices that each and every one of them has made to keep us safe. I truly hope that we will be consistent in our approach and stand up for their right to access their work, free from harassment and distress. 

"One staff member described to me how she had experienced a horrific miscarriage last year and was now heavily pregnant again, which, obviously, is a very anxious time for any woman. She was becoming increasingly anxious, and being faced with those images and scenes was extremely triggering for her. She stated how she found herself being reduced to tears almost every single day in her work when she encountered those protesters. No one should be made to feel like that, not least in their place of work. "

Speaking of one particular woman who contacted her Kimmins said "I vividly recall a mother who contacted me in desperation — that is the only way in which I can describe it — because she wanted to have protesters removed from the gates of Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry. She highlighted just how difficult it was for her adult son, who suffers from severe mental health problems. He was traumatised each time that he attended his mental health appointments. She explicitly described the fear that she felt as a mother who had already lost one son to suicide due to the mental health issues that he faced. She stressed that she needed her remaining son to be able to access the help that he required free from distress so that she would not have to bury another child. Accessing healthcare should be a private matter, and no one — absolutely no one — has the right to interfere in someone else's life like this, regardless of their opinion or view."

Concluding the MLA acknowledged a Newry group "I pay tribute to a small group of women in Newry who came together in light of the widespread public outrage on how women were and still are being treated at these sites and formed Supporting Women Newry. Week in, week out, whatever the weather, they stand in solidarity with women and families in Newry to try to make their experiences less traumatic as they access healthcare."

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