MSPs back abortion clinic buffer zone bill at first stage

Legislation which aims to introduce buffer zones around clinics providing abortions has been voted through its first stage in the Scottish Parliament.

The bill, tabled by Scottish Green MSP Gillian Mackay, passed at stage one by 123 votes to one.

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

Ms Mackay said the vote was a "big step towards" delivering the buffer zones.

She said it would help provide women with the same "dignity and privacy" they would have with any other medical procedure.

Speaking in Holyrood, Ms Mackay said: "Attending any unfamiliar medical procedure can be stressful – most of us worry about whether it will hurt, or whether something will go wrong.

“Is there anyone here who doesn’t think that would be more stressful, more frightening even, if you also had to worry that there might be people waiting outside to convince you not to go in? To perhaps call you names? Or to inaccurately suggest there might be consequences of that procedure you haven’t thought of, like cancer or infertility?"

Enforcement of the law

During the debate, MSPs questioned why the bill proposes a 200m safe access zone, instead of the 150m recommended by experts.

An exception would be the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, which might need the radius extended due to its layout.

Ms Mackay said she was "resisting" a change and intends to keep the 200m restrictions.

Questions were also raised around enforcement of the law and its impact on freedom of speech.

There was also some debate over the issue of silent prayers.

MSPs previously had a "difference of views" over the issue with some suggesting it should be an explicit exemption to avoid the "criminalisation of private thoughts".

Meanwhile, others said silent prayers "can still be intimidating" to those seeking abortion services.

Clare Haughey MSP, convener of the health social care and sport committee which gave its support to the bill, said it was about achieving a balance between "conflicting human rights".

She said the committee had concluded the restrictions the bill places on human rights were proportionate to its aim, but any restrictions should be kept to a minimum.

Gillian MacKay
The legislation was tabled by the Scottish Greens' MSP Gillian Mackay [Getty Images]

The bill received support from across the chamber.

The Scottish Conservatives' Meghan Gallacher said debates on the issue could be emotive and polarising.

She said: "This bill in my opinion is simply about women and creating safe access to healthcare where they don’t feel intimidated or harassed."

She said the largest "stumbling block" was how the bill would be enforced, adding it would be "incredibly difficult" for police officers to determine breaches of the proposed bill.

Scottish Labour's spokesperson for public and women's health, Clare Mochan, said while the government had been "slow to act", she supported the legislation.

She said: "It is right that we take all steps necessary to protect women accessing abortion services and I do believe the introduction of safe access will achieve this.

"Access to abortion clinics is access to healthcare. We cannot continue to condone the intimidation of women accessing healthcare that they are rightfully entitled to."

The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Alex Cole-Hamilton, also gave his party's support to the bill, stating “nobody should be forced to cross a picket line to access intimate medical care".

The bill will now progress to stage two where committees will suggest and discuss amendments. Stage three will see the whole chamber vote on the legislation.