The Scottish Government has been accused of “lacking leadership” by campaigners, after scrapping a working group on introducing no-protest ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics.
Previously, the Scottish Government has left local authorities to bring in buffer zones using byelaws.
However, local authorities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh city councils declined to introduce byelaws due to legal advice they received, and the possibility of lengthy and costly legal challenges from pro-life groups with wealthy backers, particularly from American Christian groups.
Humza Yousaf committed to introducing national legislation when he became First Minister, and said his Government would support Scottish Green Party MSP Gillian Mackay’s proposed Bill.
However, despite the Bill being introduced by Ms Mackay in May last year, the Government has still not introduced the legislation, and is unlikely to do so this calendar year.
Now the Government has written to activists to inform them the ministerial working group, which was to inform the wording of the Bill, will be scrapped.
The letter reads: “Given that the work on Gillian Mackay’s members’ Bill continues at pace as we are seeking to bring forward legislation as quickly as possible and the Bill team have been having bilateral discussions and contact with you or your organisations instead, we are proposing that the ministerial working group does not need to continue to meet.”
Lucy Grieves, co-founder of Back Off Scotland – a group that campaigns to introduce buffer zones – said it was “frustrating” that activists “seem to be having the same conversation year in, year out” about buffer zones.
“I think there’s a general feeling of bafflement amongst people right now at the length of time it is taking to introduce this legislation,” she said.
“We’re still receiving numerous messages a week from women who have had to face these protestors at the gates of clinics and they share our feeling of disappointment at the lack of governmental leadership on this matter and the fact we’re lagging significantly behind the rest of the U.K.”
Last month, members of Christian anti-abortion group 40 Days for Life gathered outside the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow on Sunday evening for their final vigil after almost six weeks of protests.
Members of the group, which was founded in Texas, USA in 2004, lined up across the road from the maternity unit, with many holding what looked to be small lanterns. Footage of the event was shared on social media, prompting outcry from pro-choice activists in Scotland, and renewed demands for legislation from the Government.
Ms Mackay confirmed she would be publishing the consultation analysis for her Bill “in the weeks ahead” and would introduce the final proposal shortly afterwards.
“I am committed to introducing buffer zones as soon as possible and ending the harassment and intimidation that far too many people have faced for far too long,” she said.
A spokesperson for Back Off Scotland said: “Scrapping the buffer zone working group before a Bill has been formally introduced in the Scottish Parliament seems ill-thought and premature.
Scottish Liberal Democrats MP Christine Jardine said disbanding the group “must not mean the Scottish Government abdicating their responsibility to show leadership” on the issue.
Scottish Labour’s women’s health spokesperson Carol Mochan described the move as “a backwards step at a time when we desperately need to make progress”.
The Scottish Government has been contacted for comment.