Parliament begins scrutiny of abortion buffer-zone bill
The Scottish Parliament’s Health, Social Care and Sport Committee is looking for public input as it begins scrutinising a bill designed to stop protests outside abortion clinics.
Drafted by Green MSP Gillian Mackay, the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Scotland Bill was introduced earlier this month with the aim of creating protest-free buffer zones around hospitals and clinics where abortion services are provided – referred to as protected premises in the draft legislation.
In recent years religiously motivated groups such as Texas-based 40 Days for Life have begun holding so-called vigils outside premises including the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow and the Chalmers Sexual Health Centre in Edinburgh, regularly spending six weeks at a time trying to prevent women from accessing their services.
While such groups claim their motivation is to offer prayer-based “pro-life pregnancy crisis support”, organisations such as Back Off Scotland – which has campaigned for the introduction of buffer zones for several years – have recorded testimony from women who say they were intimated by their presence.
The bill would make it an offence for anyone to protest within 200 metres of protected premises and would also make it an offence to attempt to either influence a person’s decision to access abortion services or try to prevent them from entering.
As part of its stage-one examination of the bill the health committee is seeking the public’s views on its contents between now and 20 December.
“We recognise the strength of feeling about this bill,” said committee convener Clare Haughey. “As a committee we always aim to consider any bill or issue in a careful, balanced and thorough way.
“We are committed to ensuring we scrutinise this bill in detail so that we can hear and consider all views.
“The bill’s stated aim is to ensure that people can access abortion services without fear of, and free from, intimidation, harassment or public judgement.
“We want to hear views from individuals and organisations on whether they agree with the proposals within this bill and if they would welcome the changes it would bring about.”
Mackay undertook the work on the bill herself 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.
Earlier this year a ruling from the Supreme Court relating to similar legislation introduced in Northern Ireland indicated that such challenges are unlikely to be successful. The attorney general for Northern Ireland had asked the court to consider whether buffer zones would violate protestors’ human rights and the court ruled that they would not.
Speaking to Holyrood earlier this year, Mackay said the ruling had made the drafting of the bill easier because “the fact that that precedent is there is massive”.
In addition to making it an offence to protest directly outside clinics, the bill envisages introducing fines of up to £10,000 for anyone convicted of disrupting people within a safe-access zone.
It also paves the way for future protected premises to be created and for the safe-access zone radius surrounding a protected premises to be extended or reduced, if appropriate.
Mackay said: "This is a key moment and marks the start of parliamentary scrutiny for my members bill. I hope that as many people as possible engage with the process. This is a crucial bill and I want it to be as effective and robust as possible.
"The consultation I undertook when preparing my bill received over 12,000 submissions, which shows the depth of feeling. This feedback was crucial to shaping it, and I hope that we see a similar level of engagement for this stage of the process as well.
“There is no excuse for the intimidation and harassment that far too many people have been forced to endure outside hospitals all over Scotland. It is totally wrong, and my bill will end it for good.”