Scottish Government supports nationalising anti-abortion buffer zones in U-turn decision

The Scottish Government now supports a national approach to deter anti-abortion protesters from gathering outside hospitals and clinics in a U-turn decision.

During First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Nicola Sturgeon said it was “her preference” to “legislate nationally” to ensure a “consistency of approach”.

However, in November, Maree Todd, the women’s health minister, told MSPs the Government does not consider that imposing “blanket buffer zones” around “all abortion clinics” would be “appropriate”.

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The Scottish Government now supports a national approach to deter anti-abortion protesters from gathering outside hospitals and clinics in a U-turn decision.  PA

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An official spokesperson to the First Minister told The Scotsman Ms Sturgeon’s comments are now the stance of the Government. However, “legal complexities” remain which the Scottish Government is “looking into”. The spokesperson said Ms Todd is “in the same position as the FM”.

The spokesperson added: “The FM is clear, in principle, in what she favours. The mechanics of actually achieving that are not actually straightforward as they sometimes appear.”

It comes as pressure to act on implementing 150m protest buffer zones outside hospitals and clinics has mounted as anti-abortion protests have increased across Scotland.

In recent days, protesters have stood outside the Sandyford Clinic in Glasgow wearing recording devices, holding up signs such as ‘Abortion is Murder’ and using megaphones.

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Ms Sturgeon will chair an emergency summit on buffer zones this month – understood to be held in late June – as she said the Government was now "actively considering" how Holyrood can legislate on the issue.

The emergency summit was initially called on by Scottish Labour’s Monica Lennon to allow MSPs, abortion rights groups, healthcare staff and the women directly affected by protests to get “around the table” and talk about “what they are being faced with when seeking to access legal, essential healthcare”.

Gillian Mackay has launched a private member’s Bill to implement buffer zones across Scotland.

It is not yet clear if the First Minister supports this Bill despite the backing she showed for national legislation in the chamber on Thursday.

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Ms Sturgeon claimed in May that local councils could use bylaws to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics.

However, according to Glasgow City Council correspondence, Labour MSP Carol Mochan said the authority claimed this was either not the case or it was unwilling to reveal it was because there was no “compelling public interest” to reveal further legal advice.

According to legal advice Cosla obtained, local authorities cannot use bylaws to implement buffer zones at NHS reproductive health facilities.

Speaking about the issue at Parliament on Thursday, Ms Sturgeon said: “There are legal complexities around this and it doesn’t help anybody to pretend that there are not.

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"These are complexities that local authorities and indeed national government want to work through.

"My preference is that we would be able to legislate nationally in order that there is a consistency of approach in this. We know though there is a forthcoming Supreme Court case sparked by legislation in Northern Ireland, which will undoubtedly have an impact on the legal framework here, but I am very clear on what I want to do.”

Ms Sturgeon said she wants to work with local authorities in the meantime to see “what more can be done” to protect women accessing services.

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