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

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.

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 This amendment was withdrawn and not voted on.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”.