Concern over bill to criminalise pro-life advocacy outside abortion clinics in Scotland

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Concerns have been raised over new legislation in Scotland that aims to criminalise pro-life advocacy outside abortion clinics. 

If passed, the Abortion Services Safe Access Zones (Scotland) Bill will impose 'safe access' zones - also known as 'buffer zones' - around facilities where abortions are performed.

The zones will be at least 200m but abortion providers can apply to extend the parameter beyond that and the legislation gives the Scottish government the power to do so if it believes that the existing one "does not adequately protect" women seeking an abortion.

Within the proposed zones, it will be illegal to approach women visiting abortion clinics with offers of assistance or information, and there are fears that even silent prayer may be banned - similar zones in England have led to several cases of criminal charges being pressed against pro-life volunteers for silent prayer.

Breaching the terms of the Scottish buffer zones may result in an unlimited maximum fine.

The legislation has been introduced to the Scottish Parliament by Green MSP Gillian Mackay following a consultation last year.

Christian public policy organisation, CARE for Scotland, has raised concerns about the legislation. 

Michael Veitch, Scottish Policy Officer at the charity, said: "We are concerned that this Bill is based on an objectively false narrative that access to abortions in Scotland is being impeded. Terminations are occurring at record numbers, and dangerous 'home abortion' rules remain in place.

"The buffer zones debate has diverted public attention away from issues such as disability abortion, advances in technology that improve viability, moves to reduce abortions, and wider discussions about the drivers of abortion in Scotland."

The legislation is being introduced despite recent polling from Savanta ComRes showing that less than a third of Scots (30%) support the introduction of nationwide buffer zones around abortion clinics.

Right to Life UK has warned that if the legislation becomes law, Scotland will become home to the world's most extreme buffer zone.

Spokesperson for the pro-life advocacy group, Catherine Robinson, called the legislation "draconian" and said that existing laws should be used to address any harassment or intimidation outside abortion clinics.

"This legislation goes further than any buffer zone legislation in other jurisdictions, creating a larger buffer zone than anywhere else in the world and giving the Scottish government powers to extend these zones without limit," she said.

"Many women have been helped outside abortion clinics by pro-life volunteers who have provided them with practical support, which made it clear to them that they had another option other than going through with the abortion.

"The proposed law change would mean that the vital practical support provided by volunteers outside abortion clinics will be removed for women and many more lives would likely be lost to abortion."

She criticised proposals in the legislation to extend the terms of the zones to homes and buildings.

"This is a truly draconian piece of legislation that reaches into the homes of ordinary people. It creates an offence for being publicly pro-life. It is direct viewpoint discrimination," Robinson continued.

"No one else is penalised for hanging the flag of their favourite football team from their window, or having a 'Vote Labour' sign, but if an individual or a church wants to display a sign, from within their own property, which says 'Pregnant? We can help', they may be guilty of violating this buffer zone legislation.

"This legislation is not only a direct attack on free expression and public association based on viewpoint, it is entirely unnecessary insofar as harassment and intimidation are already illegal. Wherever they occur, existing legislation can and should be used to put a stop to them."