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Scottish Bill to create abortion clinic buffer zones published

by Premier Journalist

Anti-abortion protests outside health facilities in Scotland could be prevented under a new Bill published at Holyrood.

A campaign for buffer zones preventing protestors from congregating near clinics began in Scotland in 2020, and the move follows similar legislation recently introduced in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Scottish Green MSP Gillian Mackay has tabled the Bill, after anti-abortion groups staged lengthy demonstrations outside clinics, leading to public anger.

Under the terms of the Bill, such groups could face unlimited fines if they come within 200m of a medical centres that performs abortions.  Individual health boards can also apply to extend the size of their own buffer zone.

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.

"I am confident that [this Bill] will provide the best protections anywhere in the UK.”

Earlier this year, Grace Bwone, Director of Communications, Society For The Protection of Unborn Children (Spuc) spoke at a demonstration against the Bill, saying: “Pro-life vigils are peaceful, community based vigils. They seek to offer support to vulnerable women.

“To not be present would be abandoning those women who need help the most.”

She accepted that some women coming to the clinic had found the protests unhelpful, but that overall the purpose was to be supportive. “The reality, for all abortion in Scotland, is that women aren't receiving support, they aren't receiving care. And they are being very much pushed towards this decision.”

Ms Mackay said she’d received a huge amount of input from concerned Scots, "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."

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

Campaigners say the Bill is not designed to infringe on the right to freedom of expression, or the right to protest.  If it becomes law it will mean anyone who restricts access to services, for example by chaining clinic doors closed will have committed a criminal offence.

In 2021, SNP MSP John Mason was disciplined by his party after he took part in a ‘40 Days for Life’ pro-life protest in Glasgow.  Protestors gathered at numerous clinics and medical facilities across Scotland for up to 12 hours a day during Lent.

The Scottish government has welcomed the introduction of the Bill at Holyrood.  Women's health minister Jenni Minto said: "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."

Right To Life UK spokeswoman Catherine Robinson described the Bill as "draconian" and "discriminatory", and quoted polling data from Savanta ComRes showing just 30% of the population support the legislation.

She said: "This legislation goes further than any buffer zone legislation, giving the Scottish Government powers to extend zones without limit.

England and Wales sets the limits of the buffer zones at 150m and there is no power under that legislation for the zones to be extended further.

Robinson said women had a right to access all available information when faced with an unintended pregnancy: "Many women have been helped outside abortion clinics by pro-life volunteers who have provided them with practical support, which made it clear to them that they had another option other than going through with the abortion.

"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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