SCOTLAND – Abortion clinic buffer zone law backed by Members of Scottish Parliament (MSPs)

A proposed law to ban protests outside abortion clinics is necessary to ensure women are free of intimidation, a Holyrood committee has said.

Green Party MSP Gillian Mackay  introduced a member’s bill at the Scottish Parliament in October 2023 that would block any protests taking place within 200m (656ft) of clinics.

The Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) in Glasgow has been one of several sites targeted by the so-called 40 Days for Life anti-abortion group. Ms Mackay has said the protests amounted to “targeted intimidation” of women who were getting an abortion.

The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee has now unanimously agreed to the general principles of her bill, which proposes anti-abortion campaigners be fined if they encroach on the 200m zone – with unlimited fines for serious breaches. A report published by the committee said it had considered “the conflicting human rights arguments” relevant to the bill, but it concluded they were “proportionate” to the legislation’s aims of ensuring that women were able to safely access healthcare.

The claim by these groups is that they have a right to “silent prayer” and that the bill threatened their freedom to express their views in public spaces. During the evidence-gathering process, the Committee heard concerns that police may find it difficult to determine whether the law had been breached by those undertaking silent prayers.

The report states that committee MSPs had a “difference of views” over the issue of silent prayers, with some suggesting it should be an explicit exemption to avoid the “criminalisation of private thoughts”. Meanwhile, others said silent prayers “can still be intimidating” to those seeking abortion services. Doctors working at facilities offering abortion services also raised concerns that protests outside premises could result in patients delaying or not accessing treatment, while women who had used the services also reported anxiety.

Committee convener Clare Haughey said the cross-party group of MSPs was united in backing the bill. “We recognise the strong views it has generated and that not all are in favour of its introduction,” she said. “But ultimately we believe the creation of safe access zones around abortion services is necessary to enforce the principle that everyone should be able to access healthcare free from intimidation or harassment.

“We understand there are competing human rights at play, but we have concluded this bill strikes an appropriate balance. We held extensive discussions on the issue of silent prayer and while some members felt this should be exempt from the provisions in this bill, other members felt an exemption would fundamentally undermine its purpose and that silent prayer can be intimidating to those accessing services. Some of the testimonies and stories that we heard through the process have been really heart-breaking and harrowing. The impact on patients and staff has been devastating. Nobody should ever be targeted and harassed in that way, and especially not when they are accessing healthcare.”

SOURCES: BBC, 22 April 2024 + PHOTO: PA Media ; MSP lodges abortion clinic ‘buffer zone’ bill, 6 October 2023