Abortion buffer zones law backed by committee

The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee has unanimously agreed to the general principles of the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill.

Holyrood committee backs ‘necessary’ abortion buffer zones Bill at stage one PA Media

A proposed law to ban protests outside abortion clinics is “necessary” to ensure women are free of intimidation, a Holyrood committee has said.

The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee has unanimously agreed to the general principles of the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill proposed by Scottish Green MSP Gillian Mackay.

A report published by the committee on Monday considered the conflicting human rights arguments relevant to the Bill, but ultimately concluded they are “proportionate” to the legislation’s aims of ensuring women are able to safely access healthcare.

Committee MSPs acknowledged the concerns raised by opponents of the Bill who said the proposals threaten their freedom to express their views in public spaces.

MSPs also questioned why the Bill proposes a 200-metre safe access zone, instead of the 150m recommended by experts, with the exception of Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow which might need the radius extended due to its layout.

During the evidence gathering process, the committee heard concerns that police may find it difficult to determine whether the law has been breached by those undertaking silent prayers.

MSPs also heard from doctors working at facilities offering abortion services, who raised concerns that protests outside premises could result in patients delaying or not accessing treatment, while women who had used the services reported anxiety.

The report states committee MSPs had a “difference of views” over the issue of silent prayers, 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. The committee therefore recommended the issue is discussed further at stage two.

The report went on to state that the Bill’s implementation should be subject to ongoing post-legislative scrutiny to ensure the restrictions remain proportionate.

It will now proceed through the Scottish Parliament to be voted on at stage one.

Clare Haughey, committee convener, said: “Our committee is united in backing the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill.

“We recognise the strong views it has generated and that not all are in favour of its introduction.

“But ultimately we believe the creation of safe access zones around abortion services is necessary to enforce the principle that everyone should be able to access healthcare free from intimidation or harassment.

“We understand there are competing human rights at play, but we have concluded this Bill strikes an appropriate balance.

“We held extensive discussions on the issue of silent prayer and while some members felt this should be exempt from the provisions in this Bill, other members felt an exemption would fundamentally undermine its purpose and that silent prayer can be intimidating to those accessing services.

“This will need further consideration if the Bill proceeds to stage two.”

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