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MSPs back world’s most extreme buffer zone law, despite public opposition

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Despite little public support, the Scottish Parliament has voted in favour of abortion buffer zone legislation at Stage 1 that would make it illegal to offer assistance to women seeking an abortion within 200m of any facility that performs abortions, and could even fine people for displaying pro-life signs in their own homes.

Yesterday, MSPs in Holyrood voted in favour of Gillian Mackay MSP’s Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill at Stage 1, despite the fact that a Scottish Parliament consultation on the Bill showed that 77% of respondents were opposed to introducing buffer zones in Scotland. The Stage 1 vote was held to approve the general principles of the Bill, which will now be further scrutinised. 

John Mason MSP, who voted against the Bill progressing to the next stage, said that “women should not be harassed or intimidated, but I also say that there is very little evidence of harassment or intimidation near abortion facilities”.

“With the number of abortions in Scotland having risen to more than 16,000 in 2022, it does not appear to be the case that people are being put off by vigils or protests”, he added.

Sandesh Gulhane MSP, who voted in favour of the legislation, raised concerns about the potential of this Bill to criminalise thought and silent prayer.

“Are we asking the police to determine whether the law is breached by a bystander who might be engaged in silent prayer? Are we criminalising thought? We must be clear how we police this, given that, during evidence at the committee, the police were clear that they would not ask somebody why they were at a buffer zone, and they clearly said that they were not the thought police”, he said.

Police Scotland has not called for new powers in order to be able to deal with vigils offering help to women outside abortion clinics. The consultation response summary, which revealed the lack of public support for the Bill, notes that this “was confirmed by Police Scotland’s submission, which stated that they considered existing legal powers to be sufficient”.

Gulhane also made clear that he supported the right of other kinds of peaceful demonstration outside of hospitals.

“I defend the right of patient groups to demonstrate peacefully outside a hospital—for example, on the closure of services or if there were patient safety issues, such as in the case of NHS Tayside’s Professor Eljamel. I would also not seek to restrict the right of trade unions to protest. However, given that, during evidence at the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, the police told us that that might happen as an unintended consequence, I seek reassurance that that is clear in the bill”.

The most extreme abortion buffer zone legislation in the world

If the Bill becomes law, it will introduce the world’s most extreme buffer zone law in Scotland.

The Bill proposes an extreme law change in Scotland that would create a minimum of 200m ‘safe access’, or buffer, zones around any facility that performs abortions where offering support to women would be criminalised. The 200m is a minimum, as abortion providers can apply for the zone to be extended, with the Bill giving the Scottish Government the power to extend any buffer zone beyond the 200m if they judge that the existing zone “does not adequately protect” women seeking an abortion. There is no limit on the size of the buffer zone that can be created under this power.

The minimum size of the buffer zones introduced by this law extends further than the minimum size of any other buffer zones in the world. For example, the Public Order Act 2023 in England and Wales sets the limits of the buffer zones at 150m and the legislation does not give the Government the power to extend buffer zones beyond 150m. Most buffer zones in Northern Ireland are 100m, half the size of what is being proposed in Scotland.

Within these zones, it will be illegal to influence a person in regard to their decision “to access… the provision of abortion” in an abortion clinic or a hospital. These provisions would make offers of help to women seeking an abortion illegal within a buffer zone, and could criminalise silent prayer.

Anyone who commits an offence can be fined up to £10,000 on a summary conviction, or an unlimited fine on indictment.

The provisions of the Bill apply to anything that is “visible or audible” within a buffer zone, even if these relate to private buildings. This means it may be illegal for pro-life signs to be displayed from a window within a private home or outside a place of worship if the signs are within the boundaries of or visible to a buffer zone. Similarly, conversations in private homes or outside churches may be included if they are audible inside a buffer zone. Referring to private dwellings, Mackay herself told the Committee “it is essential that such premises are covered by the legislation”.

Spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson, said “Despite overwhelming opposition to the Bill from respondents to the consultation, and polling that shows that only a small percentage of the population in Scotland support the introduction of nationwide buffer zones, MSPs voted to support the principles of this extreme legislation anyway”.

“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”.

“The proposed law change would mean that the vital practical support provided by volunteers outside abortion clinics will be removed for women and many more lives would likely be lost to abortion”.

“Sandesh Gulhane’s comments are especially relevant because they reveal that this debate is essentially about viewpoint discrimination. He, along with other MSP colleagues, is clear that he wants to ensure other types of activity outside of hospitals, such as trade union protests, are not restricted by this legislation, but being publicly pro-life and offering help to women considering abortion is. Given that trade union protests could inadvertently cause alarm to women seeking abortions, it is clear that this legislation is really just about censoring pro-life speech”.

“This is a truly draconian piece of legislation that reaches into the homes of ordinary people. It creates an offence for being publicly pro-life. It is direct viewpoint discrimination”.

“No one else is penalised for hanging the flag of their favourite football team from their window, or having a ‘Vote Labour’ sign, but if an individual or a church wants to display a sign, from within their own property, which says ‘Pregnant? We can help’, they may be guilty of violating this buffer zone legislation”.

“This legislation is not only a direct attack on free expression and public association based on viewpoint, it is entirely unnecessary insofar as harassment and intimidation are already illegal. Wherever they occur, existing legislation can and should be used to put a stop to them”.

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