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In Context: Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill

In Context: Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill

What is it about?

The bill was introduced in October by Green MSP Gillian Mackay. It aims to establish a 200-metre protest-free buffer zone around hospitals and clinics where abortion services are provided. 

Why was it introduced?

Gatherings of religiously-motivated groups outside clinics have become more frequent in recent years. Pro-life Texas-based group 40 Days for Life has repeatedly held so-called vigils outside premises, including the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow and the Chalmers Sexual Health Centre in Edinburgh, for six weeks at a time.

While protesters say they are providing “pro-life pregnancy crisis support”, campaign group Back Off Scotland – which has long called for buffer zones - say women often feel intimidated by the protestors.

Mackay undertook the work on the bill after the Scottish Government gave a lacklustre response to supporting buffer zones, with former women’s health minister Maree Todd saying the government was reluctant to introduce legislation that could be challenged for breaching laws around freedom of religion or freedom of speech.

However, in 2022 a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court indicated that similar legislation introduced in Northern Ireland would not violate protestors’ human rights.

Are there similar laws elsewhere in the UK?

MPs backed 150-metre safe access zones as part of an amendment to the Public Order Act last year. However, UK Government draft guidance on enforcement of the zones has been criticised for watering down what parliament intended. Finalised guidance is due shortly.
Northern Ireland has established 100m buffer zones.

What are the consequences of breaching the buffer zone?

Proposals dictate that anyone who breaks the buffer zone would face a fine of up to £10,000 or an unlimited fine if convicted or indicted. 

Is there public support for the bill?

Mackay launched a public consultation from May to August 2022 which garnered over 11,800 responses. Thoughts on the bill appeared divided, with 56.1 per cent in favour of the proposals and 42.6 per cent opposing it. 

Concerns about infringement of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly ranked as the top reasons by those who opposed the bill. 

Although the bill was later inroduced, women’s health Minister Jenni Minto said that the consultation had shown there was “enormous strength of feeling around this issue” and the bill had to be “robust and subject to appropriate scrutiny”.

Wait, didn’t the bill cause division in the SNP?

In 2022, SNP MSP John Mason took to X (formerly known as Twitter) to say that some clinics were “pushing abortion without laying out the pros and cons”. In a letter to Mason, SNP MSPs Stuart McMillan and Gordon MacDonald said his comments “had been extremely disappointing” and that he had brought the parliamentary group into “disrepute”.

Earlier this year, during FMQs, Mason said the Scottish Government was “overreacting” by backing Mackay’s legislation, claiming “no one” was being harassed outside abortion services. However, outgoing First Minister Humza Yousaf said he did not agree with Mason, saying it was “important to listen to the voices of women” as testimony had shown women “do feel intimidation”.

What’s happening with the bill now?

The bill has been passed at stage one, with 123 MSPs voting yes and only Mason voting no. It is being scrutinised by the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, who unanimously recommended parliament agree its general principles last month. Its report concluded that “the conflicting human rights arguments” were “proportionate” to the legislation’s objective to ensure women could safely access healthcare. However, members failed to agree on whether silent prayer vigils should also be banned, with some suggesting it should be an explicit exemption to avoid the “criminalisation of private thoughts”.

MSPs also said evidence suggested that a 150m radius would be enough, except for the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, where the formerly proposed 200m zone might be needed. The committee will discuss both issues further during stage two, which will begin imminently.

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