Medical staff fear anti-abortion protests affecting other appointments

Holyrood committee hears that patients are being put off attending services due to 'intimidating' anti-choice campaigners.

Medical staff say they are concerned protesters outside abortion clinics could put people off going to appointments for other treatments.

It comes as a Holyrood committee heard evidence on Tuesday from medical professionals and police on plans to establish buffer zones around facilities that provide terminations.

An evidence session was held for a bill brought by Greens MSP Gillian Mackay, which would create 200 metre buffer zones to stop anti-choice campaign groups from protesting outside abortion service providers.

But it faces strong opposition from those who say they are not protesting – but holding vigils.

The committee heard evidence from those providing abortion services, including representatives from the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of General Practitioners, NHS Lothian and Circle Health.

Professor Sharon Cameron, NHS consultant gynaecologist at the Chalmers Centre in Edinburgh, which provides a wide range of sexual health services, said patients are “clearly distressed and anxious” about the protests.

She said: “The staff have felt frustrated by the presence of protesters and are powerless to do anything about them.

“We are concerned it’s putting off patients attending services who fear their privacy might not be guaranteed.

“Protesters do walk up and down the street, they have even come into the reception. Their presence is a chilling one.”

She said staff also face extra work as a result of helping patients through staff entrances and arranging for services to be moved elsewhere.

She added: “Planning and maintaining services takes more time and effort.

“Well-meaning groups might also attend to protect service-users, but that’s two groups of protesters in a busy area. Then you get the impression you are working with a circus outside.”

Medical professionals addressed the committee over the buffer zones bill

Flyers featuring images of foetuses and misinformation about the health effects of abortion have regularly been handed out to patients and staff attending clinics, the committee heard.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said staff have reported feeling intimidated by protesters.

Colin Poolman, director of RCN Scotland, said: “There is a direct impact on the day-to-day basis. It’s continually distressing and wears people down.

“What one member said sticks in my head; she said she is ‘always shocked and surprised when they are there’, but that you ‘never get used to it.'”

Lucy Grieve, co-founder of Back Off Scotland, also addressed the committee.

She said: “The presence of somebody there targeting you for going for a medical procedure, making judgement about you is unacceptable.

“Whether you’re pro or anti-choice, you just can’t protest or behave like this within a designated zone.”

Anti-choice group 40 Days for Life, which organises vigils outside clinics, has insisted they hold vigils, not protests, near facilities.

Evidence will be heard from opponents of the bill over the next month, with a deadline of May 3 set for an initial vote.

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