Final piece of abortion reform passes nearly four years after work began

After nearly four years, Parliament has passed the final part of the Government’s abortion law reform programme, banning protesting outside abortion clinics, thanks to an effort from backbench Labour MP Louisa Wall.

The bill passed 108 votes to 12.

The bill will allow the creation of safe areas outside abortion facilities where it would be illegal to protest. These would be set up by the Minister of Health in consultation with the Minister of Justice who can decide to establish a safe area outside a clinic.

The safe area can be no more than 150m from any part of the facility.

Wall acknowledged that the bill brought up concerns about the balance between freedom of expression and people’s ability to get an abortion without harassment. She noted the Attorney-General considered the bill to be consistent with the Bill of Rights, which allows rights in the bill to be limited if those limitations can be justified in a free and democratic society.

“We have to ensure that people’s actions do not harm other people, that they do not act in a way that will hurt someone that will also not provide any benefit,” Wall said.

Wall paid tribute to abortion advocates Dame Margaret Sparrow and Terry Bellamak in her speech.

By a strange twist of fate this particular bill is not a Government bill, despite the idea coming from the Government’s abortion law reform programme, which began in 2018 and culminated in a bill making access to abortion easier passing in 2020.

Instead, this particular piece of legislation came from backbench Labour MP Louisa Wall, who picked up the idea as a member’s bill after provisions to ban protesting outside abortion clinics fell out of the Government’s main abortion law reform bill in 2020 almost by accident.

The Government had included provisions to establish safe areas in its original abortion bill, but they were taken out in a late-night sitting of Parliament.

Act leader David Seymour had two amendments to that bill, which would have removed safe areas. The first amendment did not pass, indicating that safe areas were supported by a majority of MPs.

But supporters of safe areas failed to muster themselves to trigger a counted or “personal” vote on the second amendment, despite the fact they had the numbers to vote it down. Instead, it passed on a voice vote.

As a result, safe areas were effectively removed from the bill. Wall later decided to pick up the cause as a Member’s Bill.

In a strange twist of fate, Seymour himself voted in favour of this bill – as did all Act MPs. He alluded to the fact that he had switched votes on safe areas between bills.

“The genesis of this bill I had a little bit to do with Act,” Seymour said.

“Act has watched this bill change to the point where it is consistent with the values of free speech, and we can support it,” he said.

Seymour said he believed the select committee’s changes to the bill brought it to a place where he could vote to it, noting the Attorney-GeneralDavid Parker now considered the changes to be consistent with the Bill of Rights, whereas the initial version of safe areas had not been.

Seymour said the initial definition of what could be prohibited in a safe area was too broad, prohibiting simple communication. This had been tightened to ban more specific forms of protest, like obstructing people and filming them.

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