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Scotland to introduce most extreme abortion buffer zone law in the world

Despite overwhelming public opposition to the introduction of buffer zones around abortion clinics in Scotland, MSPs have passed legislation 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, the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill, introduced by Gillian Mackay MSP, passed Stage 3 by 118 to one, despite the fact that 77% of respondents to a consultation on the matter disagreed with the “overall purpose” of the Bill.

In addition to the passing of the Bill, a number of amendments were considered including an amendment which added a “defence of reasonableness” in case of prosecution. This amendment was withdrawn and not voted on.

John Mason MSP, the only MSP to vote against the passing of this legislation, said, at a previous stage in the Bill’s progression, 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.

Released in April this year, a public consultation on the Bill found that 77% of respondents to the consultation are opposed to introducing buffer zones in Scotland

Out of the 5,856 responses to the question ‘Do you agree with the overall purpose of this Bill?’, 4,517 (77.13%) disagreed, 1,288 (21.99%) agreed, 40 (0.68%) partially agreed and 11 (0.19%) responded ‘don’t know’. (Full calculations and sources for these figures are available here).

The Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent in the coming weeks, at which point it will become law.

The most extreme abortion buffer zone legislation in the world

The passing of this Bill into law will introduce the world’s most extreme buffer zone law in Scotland.

The Bill proposes an extreme law change in Scotland that will 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 have voted to pass this extreme legislation”.

“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 passing of this Bill will likely mean that the vital practical support provided by volunteers outside abortion clinics will be removed for women and many more lives will likely be lost to abortion”.

“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”.

MSPs in the Scottish Parliament have passed a bill to introduce buffer zones around clinics providing abortions.

The legislation would prevent any protests or vigils taking place within 200m (656ft) of 30 clinics offering abortion services.

The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill, external, tabled by Scottish Green MSP Gillian Mackay, passed by 118 votes to one.

Opponents had said the bill could infringe on freedom of religion and wanted exclusions for silent prayer.

But Ms Mackay said everyone should be able to access healthcare with dignity and free of harassment.

She said: “For far too long women and health care staff have been forced to run a gauntlet of intimidation, judgment and fear in order to access or deliver treatment at what can often be the most emotional of times.

“No protester and no group should be allowed to tell women what they are or are not allowed to do with their body.

“This should be their choice, their privacy, and their decision.”

A spokeswoman for Care for Scotland said: “The police are already empowered to deal with any incidents of abuse or harassment that occur under existing, well-balanced laws.

“Police data shows that pro-life activities do not involve the ‘harassment’ some campaigners claim is taking place.

“Some have wrongly sought to other and problematise peaceful pro-life people who offer support to women.”

Dear reader,

You may be surprised to learn that our 24-week abortion time limit is out of line with the majority of European Union countries, where the most common time limit for abortion on demand or on broad social grounds is 12 weeks gestation.

The latest guidance from the British Association of Perinatal Medicine enables doctors to intervene to save premature babies from 22 weeks. The latest research indicates that a significant number of babies born at 22 weeks gestation can survive outside the womb, and this number increases with proactive perinatal care.

This leaves a real contradiction in British law. In one room of a hospital, doctors could be working to save a baby born alive at 23 weeks whilst, in another room of that same hospital, a doctor could perform an abortion that would end the life of a baby at the same age.

The majority of the British population support reducing the time limit. Polling has shown that 70% of British women favour a reduction in the time limit from 24 weeks to 20 weeks or below.

Please click the button below to sign the petition to the Prime Minister, asking him to do everything in his power to reduce the abortion time limit.