Safe Access Zones will be introduced at health service locations across Northern Ireland on Friday, September 29, Northern Ireland’s Department of Health has confirmed.

Safe Access Zones are being established under Northern Ireland Assembly legislation to protect women and girls accessing abortion services, information, advice, and counseling, and protect staff working at these locations.

It will be illegal for them to be impeded, recorded, influenced, or to be caused harassment, alarm, or distress within the Zones, the Department of Health said.

Five Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Trusts will introduce the Zones on Friday:

  • Southern Trust - Craigavon Area Hospital
  • Southern Trust -  Daisy Hill Hospital
  • Belfast Trust -  College Street
  • Belfast Trust - Bradbury Wellbeing and Treatment Centre
  • Northern Trust - Causeway Hospital
  • Western Trust -  Altnagelvin Hospital
  • South Eastern Trust - Lagan Valley Hospital
  • South Eastern Trust - Ulster Hospital

Safe Access Zones (SAZ) will be introduced at health service locations across NI this Friday.

Zones are being established under NI Assembly legislation to protect those accessing services, info, advice and counselling, and to protect staff.

— Department of Health (@healthdpt) September 25, 2023

Under the legislation, Safe Access Zones can be established in the vicinity of healthcare premises providing lawful abortions, as well as at premises where information, advice, or counseling about abortion services are provided.

The Zones will include the protected premises where these services are provided, as well as adjoining public space between 100m-250m from entrances or exits of the protected premises.

Information on the location of each Safe Access Zone will be displayed at all protected premises and published on the Department of Health and HSC Trust websites from September 29. Public signage will highlight the legal requirements at each Zone.

The Zones will only apply to the strictly designated public space areas. They do not apply to private properties.

The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Act (Northern Ireland) 2023, which enables the establishment of Safe Access Zones, was introduced by MLA Clare Bailey in September 2021. It passed its final stage in March 2022, making it one of the final pieces of legislation passed before the Northern Ireland Assembly dissolved.

As Irish Legal News notes, the law's enactment was delayed after the bill was referred to the UK Supreme Court by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland amid concerns that it represented a disproportionate interference with the rights of protesters under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

However, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in December 2022 that placing limitations on where abortion protests could take place was a proportionate restriction of ECHR rights, noting that “freedom of speech does not include a right to a captive audience."

The bill became law in February 2023, making Northern Ireland the first part of the UK to implement Safe Access Zones. (In Ireland, Safe Access Zones legislation is currently at the Second Stage in Dáil Éireann.)

Bailey said on Monday that the enactment of the Safe Access Zones on Friday "will lessen the impact to women accessing #abortion services from the deliberate campaign of harassment by anti #abortion groups."

#SafeAccessZones have now been established across all 5 NI health trusts. They will be live & operational from Friday. This will lessen the impact to women accessing #abortion services from the deliberate campaign of harassment by anti #abortion groups

— Clare Bailey (@ClurBailey) September 25, 2023

Abortion was decriminalized and became lawful in Northern Ireland in October 2019. In December 2022, amidst the absence of an Executive, Northern Ireland's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland instructed the Department of Health to commission abortion services.

According to NI Direct, in Northern Ireland, women and girls can request an abortion where the pregnancy is less than 12 weeks. 

Abortions can also be carried out up until 24 weeks where there is a risk to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl.

Abortions can be carried out after 24 weeks in very limited circumstances, for example, if the woman's life is at risk or in cases of severe fetal impairment or fatal fetal abnormality.