Bill to create abortion clinic buffer zones published at Holyrood

A Bill to tackle anti-abortion protests outside health facilities in Scotland has been published at Holyrood.

The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill offers the “best protections” in the UK, after England, Wales and Northern Ireland introduced similar legislation, the MSP proposing it has said.

Scottish Green MSP Gillian Mackay’s Bill follows a campaign for buffer zones in Scotland which began in 2020.

Anti-abortion groups have staged demonstrations outside clinics in recent years, sparking public outcry.

Under the terms of the Bill, protesters face unlimited fines if they breach a 200-metre limit around medical centres to “safeguard public health”, and health boards can apply to have the size of the buffer zone extended.

Ms Mackay said: “There is no excuse for the harassment that far too many people have had to endure when accessing healthcare. These protests should not be happening and today we are an important step closer to ending them for good.

“We have learnt from those who have worked to deliver buffer zones in other countries, particularly in Northern Ireland. The Bill I have lodged builds on these experiences and I am confident that it will provide the best protections anywhere in the UK.

“These protests have gone on for far too long. I am determined to ensure the appalling and distressing scenes we have witnessed outside hospitals and abortion clinics are stopped.

“There were more than 12,000 submissions to my consultation, showing the strength of feeling. These submissions have allowed us to prepare the strongest and most robust possible Bill.

“I am grateful to everyone who has shared their experiences and trusted me with their stories. I will do everything to ensure we do you justice and that nobody else has to endure what you have.”

The Bill has received cross-party support from more than 70 MSPs, including First Minister Humza Yousaf.

It will criminalise attempts to restrict access, for example by chaining doors closed, to clinics providing abortion services and “influencing a decision”, but it will not infringe on the right to freedom of expression.

In 2021, the 40 Days for Life protest group stood outside numerous hospitals and clinics, and it was joined by SNP MSP John Mason at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.

The party disciplined Mr Mason for his conduct.

The Scottish Government said women should not experience “distress or alarm” at abortion clinics and welcomed the publication of the Bill.

Women’s health minister Jenni Minto said: “This is an important milestone towards national legislation to protect women from unwanted influence, distress or alarm when accessing abortion services.

“The decision to access abortion services is an individual and personal choice which should not be subject to public demonstration or influence outside premises providing abortion services.

“It is unacceptable for women to face any fear of intimidation, harassment or unwanted influence when accessing essential healthcare services.

“The Scottish Government is grateful to Ms Mackay for the work she has undertaken to reach this stage and we will continue supporting her Member’s Bill as it makes its way through Parliament.”

The Bill will now be scrutinised and debated by MSPs.

A statement from Back Off Scotland, which has campaigned for buffer zones, said: “Since we started our campaign in 2020, we have collected thousands of stories about women who have been harassed at the gates of medical facilities.

“The launch of this crucial legislation has come not a moment too soon, and we look forward to working closely with Gillian Mackay MSP to ensure the Bill can pass through Parliament at pace.”

Right To Life UK spokeswoman Catherine Robinson described the Bill as “draconian” and “discriminatory”, and claimed just 30% of the population support the legislation.

She said: “If this Bill becomes law, the world’s most extreme buffer zone will be introduced.

“This legislation goes further than any buffer zone legislation, giving the Scottish Government powers to extend zones without limit. Vital practical support provided by volunteers will be removed and more lives lost to abortion.

“This is a draconian piece of legislation that reaches into the homes of ordinary people. If an individual or a church wants to display a sign from within their property, which says ‘Pregnant? We can help’, they may be guilty of violating this buffer zone.

“This legislation is not only a direct attack on free expression, it is entirely unnecessary as harassment and intimidation are illegal. Wherever they occur, existing legislation should be used.”

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