Councillors have formally expressed interest to the Scottish Government for Edinburgh to trial 150m buffer zones, after a motion put forward by SNP councillor Kate Campbell won unanimous backing on Thursday.
It comes after Nicola Sturgeon announced at a summit in Edinburgh the Government was looking at introducing a ‘test council’ and suggested this could be in either Glasgow or Edinburgh, or both, given the “scale” of protests in those areas.
The Government has faced growing calls to deliver on its 2021 manifesto pledge to impose protest-free zones in response to increasing levels of protests this year outside hospitals in both cities.
Women have reported feeling intimidated, harassed and traumatised before accessing essential healthcare.
Campaigners and opposition politicians have been increasingly frustrated with delays in establishing protest-free zones, heightened by fears that potential changes to abortion rights in the US could ‘embolden’ anti-choice protesters.
Women’s health minister Maree Todd previously refused to back buffer zone proposals, saying it “would be disproportionate”.
But the Government has backed a member's Bill, led by Green MSP Gillian Mackay, aimed at protecting access to terminations.
At the emergency summit on Monday Ms Sturgeon said a way to protect women from such harassment “in the short-term” would be to implement buffer zones via council by-laws.
Now campaigners hope Edinburgh council will be able to overcome any obstacles with existing by-law powers after health secretary Humza Yousaf signalled that legal challenges are not “insurmountable”.
Legal advice obtained by council umbrella body Cosla last year stated local authorities could not use by-laws to implement buffer zones at NHS reproductive health facilities.
Edinburgh council previously supported a motion lodged by Back Off Scotland in January 2021, but deferred back to the Government over the issue on grounds it would required primary legislation.
Similar zones exist in a handful of local authorities in England following a landmark case in Ealing, west London.
Lucy Grieve, from Back Off Scotland, said: “We’ve been here before, but it feels different this time. Buffer zones require legislation at national level, but we still need interim local solutions. I hope this move by Edinburgh council will help get measures in place.
“The firm support by Nicola Sturgeon has helped bring this to the forefront. It has been done in other areas, so this could be effective as as stop gap. Women need this now while we work towards legislation.”
Anti-abortion group 40 days for Life is planning a ‘peaceful prayer vigil’ for September in Edinburgh, Glasgow and other areas.
Patients at Chalmers clinic in the Scottish capital have reported protesters approaching them directly and distributing ‘alarming’ leaflets with medically inaccurate information.
Alice Murray, who had an abortion at Chalmers, said: “This is such a positive step forward. I think the commitment of the Scottish Government will give the council confidence that they can do this. Many local authorities have been scared to take action, but there has definitely been a shift in perception.
"Now it feels like a conversation about how campaigners and decision makers can work together to help protect women’s access to healthcare. I hope we will see measures being put in place so we are prepared.
“It’s hard to know others are experiencing what I went through. You carry that with you. It has been a hard-fought campaign and frustrating that it has taken so long to see progress. But it has come full circle back to Edinburgh where the campaign first started.
"It’s good to see the council take this stance against harassment. I hope Edinburgh can push forward quickly now. It is a public health emergency.”