Impact of abortion clinic protests to be examined by Scottish ministers despite opposition to 'buffer zone' legislation

The impact of protests and vigils around abortion clinics in Scotland will be examined by Scottish ministers ahead of a potential U-turn on a nationwide ban of the practice.

Ministers are set to commission expert research into abortion clinic protests, focusing on their “prevalence, frequency and scale”, their “impact” on patients, and the “perspectives and motivations” of those involved in the protests, official documents show.

The move comes just months after women’s health minister Maree Todd told Holyrood the Scottish Government “does not feel” a nationwide ban on the protests was an option.

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Members of the 40 Days For Life group, campaigners who are against abortion, protest outside Glasgow's QEUH.

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The SNP minister argued councils should instead use local bye-laws to implement the restrictions, which would restrict how close protesters can get to clinics. However, councils said this was not legally possible.

Her comments were in response to plans from Scottish Greens MSP Gillian Mackay to introduce a member’s bill legislating for the change.

The fact the Government are now researching the impact of abortion clinics could suggest a change of position, though Ms Todd said the Government was simply seeking insight on what might be an “appropriate way forward”.

The move to research the impact of abortion protests was welcomed by Back Off Scotland, a campaign group that has called for the implementation of ‘buffer zones’.

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Lucy Grieve, co-founder and director of the group, said the research was a “positive development”.

She said: “Back Off Scotland has long called on the Scottish Government to take responsibility and protect our legal right to access healthcare without fear of harassment and intimidation, so it’s a positive development to hear that they are commissioning research on the impact of abortion clinic protests.

“We hope that the commissioned research will look closely at those most affected by the protests – the patients and staff. We’ve received so many messages from women across Scotland who have faced this harassment first-hand.

"There was one common theme though, that they all felt intimidated and harassed by the presence of these protestors. It’s time that the Scottish Government listens to their voices directly.”

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Official documents state the majority of protests occur in Glasgow and Edinburgh and the research comes after the Government “received concerns asserting that the protests/vigils negatively impact women accessing clinics” and asked for action.

Ms Mackay said national action was needed “sooner rather than later” to avoid a “postcode lottery”.

She said: “We have seen these ‘vigils’ take place even during recent extreme weather events, and no-one should face harassment or intimidation while accessing health services.

“Scottish local authorities have stated that they do not have the ability to introduce buffer zones under the current law, and progress appears to have halted.”

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Ms Todd said a working group on the issue including councils, health boards and police had been convened to “seek to find an appropriate way forward as soon as possible”.

She said: “The Scottish Government believes all women in Scotland should be able to access timely abortion care without judgment, within the limits of the law, should they require it.

“The working group is continuing to explore ways to ensure that women can access abortion services without feeling harassed or intimidated.

"This includes considering commissioning research that will provide further insight into the impacts of protest and vigils in Scotland.”

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