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by Kirsteen Paterson
22 April 2024
Prayer vigil split as Scottish Parliament committee backs abortion clinic buffer zone bill

Gillian Mackay MSP proposed the buffer zone bill | Alamy

Prayer vigil split as Scottish Parliament committee backs abortion clinic buffer zone bill

The Scottish Parliament's health committee has said buffer zones around abortion clinics are necessary to protect women's rights.

But members have failed to reach agreement on whether silent prayer vigils should be banned.

The cross-party Health, Social Care and Sport Committee backed the general principles of the buffer zone bill which aims to bring in legal restrictions on pro-life demonstrations at the specialist facilities.

But it has been unable to agree on whether silent prayer meetings should also be covered.

And it says further answers are needed on how far the ban should extend.

A default 200m radius to prevent protests from taking place around entrances to clinics has been proposed but the committee says evidence suggests that 150m would be enough for all but one such premises, at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.

It says the right to protest and private thought are "cornerstones of a free democracy", but proposed restrictions are "proportionate".

The proposals now face a stage one vote.

Committee convener Clare Haughey said: "Our committee is united in backing the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill.

"We recognise the strong views it has generated and that not all are in favour of its introduction. 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 the bill, other members felt an exemption would fundamentally undermine its purpose and that silent prayer can be intimidating to those accessing services. This will need further consideration if the bill proceeds to stage two."

Proposed by Gillian Mackay of the Scottish Greens, the bill has been backed by the Scottish Government, but drawn criticism from MSPs including the SNP's John Mason, who said it would be "slightly overreacting" to including silent prayer vigils in any buffer zone rules.

Mason, who has joined such gatherings, told the first minister "no one is being harassed" by attendees, stating: "It is largely a small group of elderly religious people standing at these facilities."

In an exchange last month, First Minister Humza Yousaf told Mason that the evidence shows "women do feel harassed", adding: "I believe that legislation that Gillian Mackay is bringing forward is one that should have the support of this whole parliament."

 

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