Abortion clinic buffer zones could see vigils criminalised, opponents claim

Holyrood’s Health Committee heard from a number of groups against the proposed legislation.

Opponents of plans to create buffer zones outside abortion clinics have told MSPs they fear silent vigils and prayers would be “criminalised” under the proposals.

The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill proposes that anti-abortion campaigners would be fined if they stage a protest within 200 metres of such a facility.

A number of groups gave evidence to Holyrood’s Health Committee on Tuesday, setting out their opposition to Green MSP Gillian Mackay’s Bill.

They claimed the gatherings outside abortion centres are vigils, not protests.

After the proposed Member’s Bill received cross-party support from more than 70 MSPs, it is now being scrutinised in the Scottish Parliament.

The Bill would create a 200-metre ‘safe access area’.PA Media

Earlier, the committee heard from people in favour of the legislation, with a woman saying she felt “trapped and very overwhelmed” by anti-abortion protesters when she went for the procedure.

One of those speaking to the committee on Tuesday was Bishop John Keenan of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, part of the Catholic church.

He said the Bill “would be in effect, as far as we can see, criminalising static, peaceful vigils” and that anti-abortion views are “fairly mainstream in Scottish society”.

The 200-metre radius of buffer zones around sites like hospitals could encompass churches and private homes, he said, telling the committee the law could go further than intended.

Dr Sandesh Gulhane said a leaflet contained ‘concerning misinformation’ about abortion.PA Media

Green MSP Ross Greer sought to debate a point of theology with the bishop, arguing that Bible passages are critical of those engaging in “performative prayer”.

Bishop Keenan said Jesus prayed publicly and the Christian tradition does not limit prayer to private spaces.

Conservatives Sandesh Gulhane, an NHS GP, discussed an anti-abortion leaflet which had been presented at the session.

He said it contained “concerning misinformation” about the medical effects of abortions.

Bishop Keenan said these leaflets are not handed out in Scotland, saying there is a need for dialogue around the issue of abortion.

Another of those giving evidence was Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, of the March for Life UK group, who was arrested near an abortion clinic in Birmingham last year before later being found not guilty of breaching a public spaces protection order.

She said she had been arrested “simply for standing silently next to the closed abortion centre”.

Ms Vaughan-Spruce said: “If it’s a public street and we’re simply banning thoughts if they’re directed towards God, that’s really concerning.”

Margaret Akers of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children in Scotland told the committee: “To criminalise prayer and thought is an alarming precedent to set.”

The MSPs also heard evidence from Alina Dulgheriu, who said she had been about to get an abortion when she was handed a leaflet by those attending an anti-abortion vigil.

She said this gave her “the hope I was searching for” and led to her deciding not to have the procedure.

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