The legal process around buffer zones is “complex”, Nicola Sturgeon said during First Minister’s Questions on Thursday as concern grows over the lack of anti-abortion protest buffer zones.
The buffer zones would ban certain activities designed to deter or prevent women from accessing abortion care within 150 metres of the entrance to a clinic or hospital.
A national plan around buffer zones was a promise made in the SNP’s manifesto and the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government.
Over a week ago, more than a hundred people gathered outside the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow to protest against abortion.
A total of 76 doctors, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and Monica Lennon MSP have all written separate letters to Women’s Health minister Maree Todd expressing concern over the protests.
Campaign Group Back Off Scotland, seeking 150 metre buffer zones around abortion clinics, is calling on Women’s Health Minister to resign over the issue.
During FMQs, Monica Lennon MSP asked the First Minister if she regrets that swift action had not been taken to implement buffer zones measures.
Nicola Sturgeon said the Scottish Government is “committed to ensuring that all women are able to access timely abortions without judgement.”
She also condemned “on the strongest possible terms” attempts to intimidate women accessing abortion services.
The First Minister added: “People of course have a right to protest against abortion but they should do that outside Parliament where the laws are made, they should not do that outside a hospital where women are undergoing abortions and of course experiencing, often as they do so, extreme distress.”
Maree Todd previously claimed councils can enact by-laws to ban certain protests.
However COSLA, the governing body for local councils, sought legal advice which said it would need to come from the Scottish Government.
Addressing legal concerns, the First Minister said they remain “complex”, adding the approach agreed on must be “consistent with the law.”
Ms Lennon told The Scotsman The First Minister’s response was “disappointing” and “reveals a lack of serious effort on the part of SNP ministers.”
The MSP said: “Northern Ireland has already legislated for protest-free buffer zones at abortion services and we have fallen behind England and Wales on the provision of early abortion services.
“The competence of Nicola Sturgeon and Maree Todd is now under the spotlight, as Scotland is increasingly becoming an easy target for the anti-abortion lobby.
“Under the SNP, abortion rights in Scotland are not in safe hands. Ministers must take decisive action and work with MSPs across the Parliament to implement emergency legislation.”
The Central Scotland MSP also asked if the First Minister can confirm when telemedicine will be made permanent in Scotland. However, this was not addressed by the First Minister.
On March 30, the House of Commons voted to make telemedicine for early abortion care permanent in England.
Ms Sturgeon promised to keep parliament updated on buffer zones as she said the Scottish Government’s buffer zones working group continue to meet.
Consultation on a member’s Bill brought forward by Green MSP Gillian Mackay to introduce buffer zones is being finalised. This could take months to implement given a necessary 3-month consultation period.