Scottish Government confirms second abortion summit in August as anti-abortion protests continue

The Scottish Government has confirmed they will host another abortion care summit and discuss the introduction of protest buffer zones at local authority level this month.

The summit is planned for late August, the Scottish Government has said, and will aim to look at using byelaw powers to prevent patients feeling harassed by anti-abortion vigils or protests.

This will be the second summit the Government has convened after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon hosted one in June.

Scotland has seen a recent marked rise in anti-abortion protests across the country, with more protests from the group 40 Days for Life set to take place next month.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks during a summit on abortion care in June.

At the last summit, the First Minister said the Government was considering test councils, specifically Edinburgh and Glasgow, to implement 150m buffer zones to protect women from anti-abortion harassment.

The Government said it was working with councils’ umbrella body Cosla and relevant local authorities to prepare for the latest summit.

There will also be another summit later on – either at the end of this year or the start of next year – to discuss “broader” issues, including national legislation of buffer zones.

Ministers are waiting for the UK Supreme Court to rule on a Northern Irish case around buffer zones legislation to see if that clarifies the legal situation.

A Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is planning a summit for late August.

"We are working with Cosla and relevant local authorities to prepare for this. This meeting will focus on the potential for using byelaw powers to address issues at particular sites in order to prevent patients or staff feeling harassed or intimidated by abortion vigils or protests.

“The First Minister also proposed convening a further, broader summit on abortion rights around six months after the first abortion summit in June. This will be arranged after the Supreme Court judgement has been received in relation to the Northern Irish Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill.”

Both Ms Sturgeon and women’s health minister Maree Todd suggested at the previous summit a test council for buffer zones could be in either Glasgow or Edinburgh, or both, given the “scale” of protests.

However, in November, legal advice sought by Cosla stated that it would be “unlawful” for councils to use by-laws to implement the zones.

The Scottish Government is investigating whether to back a private member’s bill by Green MSP, Gillian Mackay, to introduce the zones at a national level.

Ms Sturgeon said she “believed strongly” that legislation was the correct long-term solution, but buffer zones could breach the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects free speech.

Lucy Grieve, Co-founder of campaign group Back Off Scotland said: “Between now and Gillian Mackay MSP’s Member’s Bill passing through the Scottish Parliament, it’s crucial that we find a solution that protects patients and staff from running the gauntlet of this harassment.

"National buffer zones are the only long-term solution, but local authority legislation may be key in protecting service users in the interim.

"We look forward to hearing the outcome of the local authority-focused summit, and to reconvene later in the year with the First Minister to discuss the path forward.”

A poll run by Savanta ComRes last month, in conjunction with The Scotsman, showed more than two-thirds of Scots supported the introduction of buffer zones around abortion clinics in Scotland. Fewer than one in 12 opposed their implementation, according to the survey.

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