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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, April 30, 2024


Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-13015, in the name of Gillian Mackay, on the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill at stage 1. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons. I will allow a moment or two for front-bench members to organise themselves.


Gillian Mackay (Central Scotland) (Green)

I am delighted to open the stage 1 debate on the general principles of the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill. I thank the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee for its scrutiny of the bill over the past few months.

I am also grateful to everyone who gave evidence. I know from recent experience that appearing before a committee can be daunting, so I appreciate everyone who did so, no matter their perspective. Given the significant issues that the bill raises, it is right that scrutiny should be robust and challenging, and the stage 1 report shows that it has been both those things. That makes me even more pleased that the committee has endorsed the bill’s general principles.

I also thank all the campaigners, including Back Off Scotland, Abortion Rights Scotland, individuals and clinicians for their work, support and campaigning. Undoubtedly, we would not be here without them all. Many of those who have campaigned for the bill are with us in the public gallery today.

First, I will provide some general comments on the bill. It is relatively small, but its size does not reflect the depth of feeling that it has provoked or the scale of change that it will bring.

There are three reasons for that. The first is simply that abortion can be deeply polarising. I do not expect or intend to change that. Even across the Parliament, we will hold different views.

However, the bill is not about the rights or wrongs of abortion; it is about the right and ability of patients to access care without running a gauntlet of disapproval and judgment. That relates directly to the second reason for opposition. Some do not think that there is a need for safe access zones. As I recently told the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, I whole-heartedly wish that was so, but too many have given testimony that indicates otherwise. I will share a couple of examples.

From a woman responding to my consultation, there was this harrowing account:

“When walking into the clinic, I had two large older men screaming at me, calling me names. I had no one with me and no one to defend me when I was in no fit mental state to defend myself.”

She went on to say:

“Because of their cruel words during such a horrific and vulnerable time in my life, I carried that guilt for years.”

Professor Sharon Cameron, who gave evidence to the committee, said that

“Women attending the clinics have clearly been distressed, while others have been phoning up in advance of a consultation, anxious about entering the building and worried about protesters and perhaps media”,


“Feedback that we got at the time was that they were feeling targeted, anxious and harassed”

and that staff

“are also anxious and concerned about patients being put off attending our services, and the situation has resulted in additional workload”—[Official Report, Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, 5 March 2024; c 2, 3.]

I urge anyone who doubts the bill’s necessity to reflect on those testimonies.

Attending any unfamiliar medical procedure can be stressful. Most of us worry about whether it will hurt or whether something will go wrong. Does anyone here not think that it would be more stressful—more frightening, even—if they also had to worry that there might be people waiting outside to convince them not to go in, perhaps to call them names or to inaccurately suggest that there might be consequences of that procedure that they had not thought of, such as cancer or infertility? All that the bill does is try to prevent that for women who are seeking an abortion to ensure that they have the same dignity and privacy that they would have at every other medical procedure.

That does not mean that members should stop asking tough questions about the bill, but I ask that members take the opportunity to protect women at a time when many are already incredibly vulnerable and all are, at the very least, making an enormously personal decision that should not be subject to unwanted comment from strangers.

That leads me to the third reason for opposition. The bill raises issues about freedom of expression, religion and assembly. There are those who agree with the bill in principle but who are concerned on those grounds. I have never taken those concerns lightly, and I would never stand behind a bill that threatened those fundamental rights. However, I am confident that the bill is a proportionate means of protecting women and staff from activities that—as members have heard—can have profound consequences.

However, the chamber need not rely only on my judgment. The stage 1 report says:

“the Committee has concluded that the restrictions the Bill imposes on those human rights as set out in Articles 8, 9,10 and 11 of the ECHR are proportionate to its aims, namely strengthening the ability of women seeking an abortion to exercise their own rights under Article 8.”

I remain willing to discuss concerns at more length with any member, but I assure the chamber that the committee did not take those questions lightly either. That is evident, given the recommendations in the report, some of which I will now turn to.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I am grateful to Gillian Mackay for giving way and I thank her for her leadership on this very important and excellent bill. Ms Mackay was kind enough to meet me about a concern that I have with a provision in the bill, which I whole-heartedly support, about the ability for future Governments to reduce the size of buffer zones without recourse to Parliament. Reflecting on the stage 1 report, I see that the committee had similar concerns. Will she address those concerns in her remarks?

Gillian Mackay

I will come to some of the things that Mr Cole-Hamilton and I discussed shortly.

As, I hope, the chamber will understand, much of the report’s detail is still being worked through. However, I will provide what assurance I can today.

First, I note the repeated call for a post-legislative review. As a sitting member of the Parliament, I would always expect legislation to be reviewed, which is why I followed general precedent and did not explicitly provide for that. However, I recognise the particular concerns and the difficult balancing that is required in relation to the bill, and I am content to lodge an amendment at stage 2 to provide for a review.

Similarly, I note the concerns about reduction and extension powers, and specifically the recommendation that consultation should be required in the bill. I judged that consultation would occur as standard practice and that it was unnecessary to specify it. However, again in recognition of the issues at play, I will lodge an amendment to put that matter beyond doubt.

There are other recommendations on extension and reduction, as well as on parliamentary scrutiny more generally. Those are complex and important issues, and I am keen to give them the due consideration that they deserve. I will not commit to concrete actions today while that consideration is under way, but I commit to continuing to listen to concerns from members around the chamber and to alleviating as many of them as I can. That is true for the whole report.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I apologise to Gillian Mackay that I was not able to speak to her ahead of making this intervention. The stage 1 report was fascinating, and Ms Mackay has my good will in relation to the legislation. One of the bill’s provisions states that other related services that are connected to abortion but are not abortion clinics could come within the scope of a buffer zone. The policy memorandum mentioned pharmacies possibly being one of those. There are pharmacies in every high street. My concern is that such an extension might lead to, say, a pro-life group being unable to have a stall in a high street. Could Ms Mackay provide reassurance on that? Alternatively, will she perhaps reflect on that ahead of stage 2?

Gillian Mackay

Absolutely. I reassure Mr Doris that the number of sites that are currently protected represents those that are designated under the Abortion Act 1967. Any other premises covered by the bill as it stands would have to be designated under that act as providing such services. That would stop what has been called mission creep. I will be happy to have a wider discussion about that with Mr Doris after stage 1.

The final point that I must address is the recommendation that the default radius of the zone around protected premises should be reduced from 200m to 150m. I will happily discuss my position with all interested members over the coming weeks and at committee at stage 2. However, I must and will resist such a change.

The stage 1 report refers to scoping work showing that 150m suffices for all but one set of premises. We identified that we needed to address premises and factors that could provide a captive audience, such as bus stops and places where people come in and out of services and sites. We needed to ensure that the zone was big enough to capture all those places.

I realise that I might have to come to an end there, Presiding Officer, but I hope to be able to cover my remaining points at the end of the debate. I will be happy to speak to any members ahead of stage 2. I commend the bill to Parliament.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill.

I call Clare Haughey to speak on behalf of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee.


Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests in that I hold a bank nurse contract with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

As convener of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, I am pleased to speak to our stage 1 report on the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill. I thank the committee’s clerks and Scottish Parliament information centre colleagues for their work on the report.

The bill aims to achieve a balance between conflicting human rights: the rights of women who access abortion services to have privacy and to feel safe and secure when doing so and those of people who wish to express their opposition to abortion outside premises where such services are provided.

With that in mind, the committee has taken a careful and considered approach to its scrutiny of the bill at stage 1. In doing so, our focus has been to determine whether the restrictions that the bill imposes on the human rights of certain individuals is proportionate to its aim, which is to protect the human rights of other individuals and to strengthen their ability to exercise those rights.

Article 8 of the European convention on human rights requires the state to ensure that an individual is protected against interference in their private life. That includes an individual’s right to access or to provide abortion services. It also includes the rights of people who live in proposed safe access zones. Under article 9, everyone has the right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Under article 10, everyone has the right to freedom of expression. Under article 11, everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. None of those human rights is absolute; they can all be restricted to protect the rights of other people.

The committee set out to scrutinise not only the provisions of the bill but whether it is proportionate to restrict the rights of one group of people in favour of those of another.

The bill is not concerned with the legality of abortion. In this country, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, and beyond that if there is a significant risk to the life of the person accessing abortion services or there is evidence of fetal abnormality. However, it would be remiss of me, in this context, not to recognise that not everyone agrees with abortion, and that is the main reason why people gather outside abortion services to express their beliefs.

During the committee’s scrutiny, we heard evidence that activity by those who are opposed to abortion has increased outside clinics in Scotland in recent years. We heard about activity occurring outside a number of premises in Scotland, and we took extensive evidence both from those who have been affected by activities outside abortion services and from those engaging in such activities. I thank everyone who assisted the committee with its scrutiny, those who responded to our call for views and those who gave evidence in person or online. In particular, I thank Back Off Scotland and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. Both organisations helped us to engage with individuals, both formally and informally, in order to hear their personal experiences.

Some people chose to speak to us in private and others spoke publicly on the record. In weighing up the evidence that we heard, the committee concluded that the restrictions that the bill places on human rights

“are proportionate to its aims”,

and that, as a committee, we support the general principles of the bill.

However, we are clear that we must tread very carefully in this area. For us, as a Parliament, our guiding principle must be to ensure that any restrictions on human rights should be kept to the minimum necessary to meet the bill’s policy aims. Our report highlights areas in which the committee thinks that the bill could be clarified or strengthened in that regard. One of our key recommendations is that the legislation should be

“subject to ongoing review to ensure restrictions continue to be proportionate to the legitimate aims of the Bill as circumstances change”.

We believe that provision should be made for

“regular post-legislative review to ensure”

that the bill’s implementation

“remains suitably proportionate, balanced and effective”

over time.

The bill sets out that the safe access zones should have a standard radius of 200m, and it also makes provision for the radius of individual sites to be extended to address site-specific circumstances. We have heard that a radius of 150m would be sufficient to address sites that are covered by the bill, with the exception of the Queen Elizabeth university hospital in Glasgow.

In order to align with the principle that human rights restrictions should be kept to a necessary minimum, we propose in our report that the default radius of the safe access zones in Scotland should be set at 150m. Once the bill is in force, separate provision should be made to extend the radius of the safe access zone at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital to address the specific situation at that site.

We are also of the view that processes in the bill to extend or reduce safe access zones should be subject to stronger safeguards. We believe that

“there may be justification for setting minimum and maximum requirements”

for those zones in the text of the bill. We also believe that

“decisions about reducing or increasing the size of safe access zones”

should be subject to a human rights proportionality assessment; prior consultation with service providers and other relevant stakeholders; and parliamentary scrutiny via delegated powers.

The committee agrees with the definition of “protected premises” as set out in the bill. However, we remain concerned that any future decision to widen that definition could result in the bill applying to a much larger area than is currently intended and, as a result, having a far greater impact on human rights. Again, that is an area in which care will need to be taken to ensure that the bill’s impact remains proportionate to its aims, and in which Parliament will have an on-going role to play in carefully scrutinising future decision making.

The committee spent a considerable amount of time exploring potential scenarios arising from the bill’s implementation; what would or would not constitute an offence; and how potential offences could be managed. Key areas of focus included silent prayer, displaying religious iconography and what takes place in private premises, people’s homes and religious institutions that are located in a safe access zone.

On the issue of silent prayer, as the report makes clear, there were different views among those on the committee. Some members felt that the bill should include a specific exemption for silent prayer; other members believed that doing so would fundamentally undermine the bill’s purposes. We concluded that silent prayer is a matter that will need to be debated further should the bill progress to stage 2.

Does the member think that the police will be able to put such an exemption into practice with regard to what is silent prayer and what is somebody simply reflecting by themselves?

Clare Haughey

Mr Mason’s point reflects some of the discussions that the committee had and some of the evidence that we received, regarding silent prayer, both from people who held vigils or protests outside abortion service providers and from the police. That is why the committee recommends that the issue needs to be debated further at stage 2.

Notwithstanding that difference in view on the issue of silent prayer, the committee has concluded that, for the bill to be implemented appropriately, individual cases will need to be carefully assessed on the basis of their particular circumstances. For that to happen, we recognise the critical importance of giving police officers on the ground the necessary specialist training to ensure appropriate enforcement of the offences that are created by the bill. Our report calls on the Scottish Government to commit to providing the necessary funding to deliver that training and for that to be reflected in an updated financial memorandum.

In conclusion, I look forward to hearing members’ contributions to this afternoon’s debate and to considering the bill further should Parliament vote to approve its general principles.

I advise members that we are very tight for time this afternoon, so members will have to accommodate any interventions in their speaking time allocations.


The Minister for Public Health and Women’s Health (Jenni Minto)

It is my privilege to support the bill. I thank the committee for its consideration. The bill raises important issues and I appreciate its thorough and thoughtful scrutiny of the evidence that it heard. I also recognise the work of the Scottish Government bill team the preparatory work that my colleague Maree Todd led.

In responding, I will do my best not to repeat the points that Gillian Mackay has made. Ms Mackay has, with her usual insight, set out why the bill matters. I therefore join her in urging those of you who doubt the necessity of the bill to listen to the women and staff who have had the courage to speak. We are here because of them, and we must not forget them.

Ms Mackay has confirmed the amendments that she will introduce at stage 2, and the Government fully supports those positions. Likewise, we share her reasons for fiercely resisting the reduction of the zone distance from 200m, and I, too, am happy to discuss that with any member who has concerns.

I am aware that some areas of the stage 1 report—for example, on finances—require a Scottish Government response. Once we have considered the report more fully, we will gladly provide that.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

On the same topic that I raised with Gillian Mackay, which was the potential reduction of the distances of the buffer zones, does the minister recognise that those provisions are not in law in England or Northern Ireland, where those measures have already been brought in? They are functioning without them, so perhaps we can, too.

Jenni Minto

I recognise what Mr Cole-Hamilton says, and I am happy to have further discussions with him on that.

Today, because it is a source of particular concern for some people, I will focus on silent prayer. I appreciate the considered discussions that I have had with members on the topic. I know that it is a difficult and complex subject. I am also aware that prayer is, for many, an act of profound significance. The bill does not, either by intent or in effect, undermine this Government’s respect for that or the right of anyone, whatever their faith, to hold whatever belief they choose.

The bill criminalises behaviour—I am paraphrasing here—that is intended to influence a decision to access or provide services, impede access to services or cause alarm, harassment or distress to someone accessing or providing services, or is reckless as to whether it does those things. The bill does not criminalise silent prayer. The offences have been defined in that way to avoid unintentionally creating loopholes.

However, two points have been made on that that relate to silent prayer. First, that activities such as displaying placards or carrying out silent prayer are not harmful. I recognise that that belief is sincerely held, but I must point out that the sincerity of that belief does not change the impact—and members have already heard from Ms Mackay what that impact is. Indeed, the Supreme Court acknowledged that impact in its ruling on the Northern Ireland legislation. It is therefore right and necessary that such activities can be caught if circumstances require.

Secondly, it has been said that, by allowing prayer to be potentially caught at all, we are criminalising thought.

How will we police that?

Jenni Minto

If Mr Gulhane will allow me, I am just coming on to that in my speech.

I can whole-heartedly say that that is not the case, because, again, only the impact matters. If someone prays silently on their way to the hospital or, indeed, takes a few minutes to stand quietly outside, it is very unlikely that anyone would know that they are praying. Let me be clear: it is not the prayer that gives rise to the offence; it is the facts and circumstances surrounding the whole conduct that do.

As the Supreme Court recognised,

“Silent but reproachful observance of persons accessing”

an abortion clinic

“may be as effective, as a means of deterring them from”

getting an abortion

“as more boisterous demonstrations.”

Again, it is not the prayer itself but the sense of judgment that can be harmful. I repeat: prayer in itself is not an offence.

Crucially, determining whether behaviour is an offence will always be for Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. Those organisations already make such assessments—for example, the threatening or abusive behaviour and stalking offences under the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 and the domestic abuse offence under the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 all require judgment on the effects of behaviour.

Finally, as drafted, the bill only creates safe access zones of 200m around 30 premises. Everywhere else, those who oppose abortion, on whatever grounds, can make that opposition known in whatever lawful manner they choose. That does not mean that the offences and that particular issue should not be scrutinised. I am genuinely grateful for the robust challenge that we have received. However, I am confident that the bill as drafted is the best way to provide the protection that women and staff need, and I am equally confident in the experience of our enforcement agencies to implement it proportionately.

Ms Mackay highlighted the subject matter as one reason why the bill is contentious, and noted that some of us in the chamber will continue to hold radically different views on abortion. Truly, we can always rely on there being radically different views across the chamber on a range of subjects. However, the bill is testament to the potential for even this divided chamber to find common cause.

I am extremely proud of the arrangement that has brought the bill to fruition. It speaks to the strength of the Parliament that a member can drive such a process, and it speaks to the power of collaboration that the Government and a member can work as one even on such a complex issue. More than that, it shows how we can unite across all party lines when we are motivated by a greater good—in this case, to protect and defend the dignity and privacy of women accessing vital healthcare and those who provide it. That unity of purpose has been clear since Ms Mackay held her first debate on the issue in 2021. Contributions from Carol Mochan, Alex Cole-Hamilton, Megan Gallacher and others highlighted the need for action, as have meetings that I have held with Opposition members. Today, we have the opportunity to take that action.

In my first speech in the Parliament, I quoted Edwin Morgan’s poem “Open the Doors”. In my view, these words talk to the bill:

“We give you our deepest dearest wish to govern well, don’t say we have no mandate to be so bold.”


Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

I welcome the opportunity to open the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives.

For the past few weeks, my inbox has been full of letters from constituents who have written to me—it will, of course, be the same for MSP colleagues—about their views on Gillian Mackay’s abortion clinic buffer zone bill. There have, of course, been opposing views, but it is important that everyone has the right to put their argument to their MSPs, who are elected to the Parliament. Such debates are never easy. They are emotive, they can be polarising, and they can easily diverge into debates about social conscience issues. However, I do not see that in this debate about abortion today, and I am pleased that that has been reflected across the chamber so far.

People have strong views on whether they support abortion, and everyone is, of course, entitled to their view. However, in my opinion, the bill is simply about women and creating safe access to healthcare where they do not feel intimidated or harassed. That is a reasonable ask, so I commend Gillian Mackay’s work in bringing forward a bill that aims to protect and support women.

We are not the first Parliament to look at such legislation. The United Kingdom Parliament voted in favour of establishing buffer zones in England and Wales that create perimeters within which certain activities cannot take place.

The Scottish Conservatives will support the general principles of the bill. However, I want to outline some concerns that were identified through the committee stage that still need work, should the bill move on to stage 2.

The harrowing accounts shared by women at the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee are a stark reminder that women fight every day for their rights to be upheld. Therefore, it is incumbent on MSPs to bring forward meaningful legislation that sets out clear aims and objectives, because, regardless of whether the principles are right, if the bill is unworkable it will not provide the protections that it aims to provide.

Gillian Mackay covered a number of the concerns that were raised in committee in her opening speech. One of the first concerns that I was going to raise was about the perimeters surrounding the buildings in question. However, I understand that she has addressed that element. Therefore, I will move on to other concerns, because policing, I think, will be more problematic in relation to the bill.

There is a long-standing argument in this country—one that I whole-heartedly support—that surrounds the rights of freedom of expression and religion. We have already mentioned silent prayers and where it is appropriate to perform them: whether that can be done at home or anywhere. The question that I still have, which will take a lot more exploration in order to come to a conclusion, is whether silent prayers need to happen outside a clinic, or whether people can gather in another location that would allow them to express themselves while giving women the ability to access healthcare. I fundamentally agree that religious freedom is a protected characteristic, but I am not entirely sure how we work around that in the bill that has been introduced.

Then there is the enforcement argument. More consideration is needed around how intimidation is defined to ensure that the bill is clear in its objectives. The largest stumbling block in the bill relates to how the law will be enforced. How will it be enforced equally? Will it be down to individual determination by officers? When will people know that they might be breaking the law? What happens if, as has already been raised, someone is expressing themselves in a home that is included in a marked zone? It will be incredibly difficult for police officers to determine breaches of the proposed bill, but that is something that we can tease out at stage 2 and stage 3, should the bill progress to those stages.

Returning to the argument on silent prayers, should that be an exemption or is it seen as intimidating? It is different from examples that we have heard that involved clear intimidation, where leaflets have been handed out and words have been exchanged. I would view that as intimidation, and it would be traumatic for clinicians, women and everyone who is accessing the clinic for whatever purpose. We need to remember that not everyone who is accessing the clinics is doing so for abortion services.

Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

Does Meghan Gallacher agree that women have been silently judged for hundreds of years in going about their daily life? The bill will seek to address that in terms of how women feel when they are running the gauntlet of individuals whose intention it is, through silent prayer, to intimidate and harass. That will be the crux of the argument that she is bringing.

Meghan Gallacher

Good points are raised by Elena Whitham. For me, it is about ensuring that women have safe access to those clinics. That is the fundamental principle of the bill, and that is certainly why I back it, because I believe that that should be the case.

However, as has already been highlighted by others, the human rights element is important. We have to tread carefully in how we move forward to ensure that we have a balance and that it does not tip. If we tip the balance, that can create more animosity and more of a problem than that which the bill is trying to solve. I think that the intention of the bill is right, but we need to think about how we move forward to ensure that all the issues that have been highlighted thus far are teased out.

I know that I am against the clock, so I will conclude on that point. I thank Gillian Mackay for introducing the bill. I look forward to considering the bill at stage 2 and stage 3, and I will certainly vote for the bill at decision time today.


Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

In opening the debate for Scottish Labour, I thank the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee for producing its stage 1 report, the clerks for assisting the committee in its work and all of those who gave evidence on the matter. I also thank Gillian Mackay for introducing the legislation and for working across parties to achieve its aims.

On a personal level, I have been supportive of the introduction of safe access zones to protect women who are accessing abortion services. It has long been my view and that of my party that Scotland ought to be leaders in this area. However, the Government has been slow to act, which means that Scotland has to catch up with other parts of the UK. That situation could have been avoided. The various summits and conversations that the former First Minister led did not lead to any sort of prompt action, as we predicted would be the case at the time. Having said that, I make it absolutely clear that Scottish Labour supports the member’s proposed legislation. It is right that we take all steps that are necessary to protect women accessing abortion services, and I believe that the introduction of safe access zones will achieve that.

The truth is, as we have heard, that access to abortion clinics is access to healthcare, and we cannot continue to condone the intimidation that women face when accessing healthcare to which they are rightfully entitled. All members understand that visiting a healthcare setting can be worrying and stressful for a variety of reasons. Women accessing sexual health services, specifically abortion services, could be going through an extremely challenging, emotionally traumatic and physically draining time in their lives. We heard about that in our evidence taking, and we heard about feelings of stress resulting from the presence of intimidating behaviours. Women need to have safe access to the services and advice that they require, and the bill will work to achieve that.

I turn to the stage 1 report and the response to the committee from the member in charge of the bill. Scottish Labour supports the committee’s view that restrictions must be proportionate to the legitimate aims of the bill. We are of the view that any restrictions on human rights that are imposed by legislation must be kept to an absolute minimum, and we are content that the bill achieves that aim.

We could debate many areas, but, of course, we have time restrictions, so I will focus on three key areas that I consider to be important to get right as we go through the next stages of the bill.

I agree that robust post-legislative scrutiny will be absolutely required to obtain an understanding of how the legislation is working, and I agree with the committee’s recommendation on that. I am pleased that the member in charge of the bill has accepted the committee’s view, and that she will seek to lodge amendments to resolve the issue. The member will work on a cross-party basis, so I believe that those amendments will deliver the reassurance that the committee has sought.

On a similar point, Scottish Labour is of the view that a commonsense approach to implementation is absolutely required. That will require individual cases to be considered in relation to their own set of circumstances. The report states that

“operational management of enforcement of the legislation will have a critical role to play in ensuring its appropriate implementation.”

I consider that to be a key point, and I would be interested to hear from the minister on the Government’s view on ensuring that implementation is as successful as possible.

It is important that the bill protects the rights to engage in trade union activity in relation to the advancement of workers’ rights. The right of workers in our health service to protest and call for better pay and terms and conditions, for example, must not be undermined indirectly by any legislation. The committee’s recommendation to expand the exemption relating to trade union activity to allay trade unions’ concerns that such activity may be considered as an offence is important, and I hope that the member will continue to engage with the trade unions—specifically our health trade unions—to identify what work might need to be carried out to allay any further fears on that matter.

Finally, the issue of silent prayer came up on various occasions when the committee took evidence. As noted in the committee’s report, members held different views on that. On a personal level, I am reassured by the clarity that Gillian Mackay provided in her letter to the committee, and I know that she will work with others to ensure that we get this right, as she has been very helpful in our discussions.

Once again, I reiterate Scottish Labour’s support for the bill at stage 1, and I commit my party to working with Gillian Mackay to improve the bill in many of the areas that members have spoken about so far and, I am sure, will speak about, to ensure that the bill enters its next stages with as much cross-party support as possible. The bill is clearly required to protect women’s access to abortion services.


Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

On behalf of the Green Party group, I congratulate our colleague and friend Gillian Mackay on introducing the bill to the Parliament, and I congratulate all the campaigners and health professionals who have fought for so long for this moment.

I also thank colleagues on the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee for allowing me to participate in stage 1 proceedings, even though I missed the Finance and Public Administration Committee’s field trip to a quarry in order to do so.

Another person whom I want to thank on behalf of the Scottish Greens is our former Northern Ireland Green colleague Clare Bailey, who passed the UK’s first legislation on safe access zones. So much of what is now being achieved in Scotland, England and Wales is because of her work in Northern Ireland.

Every Scottish Green MSP will, of course, vote for our colleague Gillian Mackay’s bill today. Access to healthcare is a fundamental right. However, at this point in time, a woman’s right to access reproductive healthcare in Scotland is being compromised by anti-abortion protests. Anyone is free to hold an anti-abortion point of view—freedom of thought is absolute—but our right to manifest our views is not absolute and, in this case, does not trump a woman’s right to access healthcare.

The bill poses a question of how we balance rights. Ultimately, it will place a small restriction on the right to protest and religious expression in order to allow others to fully exercise their right to healthcare. I sincerely believe that it is a small restriction, because the bill will not ban protest—it will purely ban proximity when protesting.

Restrictions based on proximity already exist. Someone cannot protest abortion in the waiting room of a hospital or inside the building at all. We are not having that argument. The bill is about the extent to which we set limits on proximity, because the limits that currently exist are clearly not sufficient. That does not mean that we should create such restrictions lightly. Any restriction on rights should be carefully considered and should go only as far as is necessary to achieve balance.

The reason why I believe that the restriction in the bill is small is that I do not believe that proximity is essential for those who want to express anti-abortion views. I posed that argument to witnesses who engaged in or supported what they described as anti-abortion or pro-life vigils. Prayer can absolutely be a form of protest. I say that as someone whose faith is deeply important to me. However, for the purpose of this argument, I will accept their premise that they are engaging in prayer, not protest, because I want to talk about the Christian theological dimension.

Not all of the people at such vigils are Christians, but the vast majority are, as are those who gave evidence to us, and it is important to understand the motivation of those engaging in behaviour that we are seeking to prevent or displace. Bishop Keenan, from the Catholic church, explained the importance of prayer to Christians—I agree—but his evidence and that of others strayed between prayer and preaching, which engage different rights and different questions of faith.

Christians are called to spread what we consider to be the good news, but we are explicitly not called to pray performatively in public. Jesus is really specific about that. Just before introducing the Lord’s prayer, he said:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

That is in Matthew, chapter 6, for anybody who wants to do a bit of further reading. Last week, the Presiding Officer was presented with a lovely new parliamentary Bible, which, I am sure, she would lend to other members.

When Jesus said that those who pray for others to see them have already received their reward in full, he was making the point that such prayer is directed towards those around them, not towards God. The reward is the attention of other people, and he condemns that.

The point about whom prayer is directed towards is a critical legal question. Praying to God, either individually or as a group, does not require proximity to what or whom is being prayed for. I am not saying that proximity is never important and has no value, but, in this case, proximity is clearly intended to influence the outcome—in other words, to persuade or intimidate women into not having an abortion. At that point, you are clearly impacting someone else’s ability to exercise their rights. Your rights, therefore, need to be balanced against theirs. Quite obviously, you cannot access abortion services somewhere other than at an abortion service provider, but you can pray, protest and preach elsewhere, including just up the road.

Restrictions on rights, even to achieve balance with other rights, are significant enough to usually warrant on-going scrutiny. The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee recommended amending the bill to include provisions for post-legislative scrutiny, and I welcome Gillian Mackay’s commitment to lodge such amendments at stage 2.

Despite the Abortion Act 1967 having come into force across the UK almost 60 years ago, this is still a deeply politicised area of healthcare. The organisations that put together anti-abortion protests in Scotland have been repeatedly found to spread dangerously false claims, including that abortion increases the chance of getting breast cancer, which is utterly false. Those organisations say that both sides of the debate must be heard. Clearly, there are two well understood sides of the moral argument, but the provision of health advice is for healthcare professionals. It is not a space for political debate—that can and does take place elsewhere.

The bill is an opportunity for Parliament to listen to women who have sought abortion and have been profoundly affected by protests, and to the other patients, service users, families, relatives, chaplains, hospital staff and others who have also been affected. As Gillian Mackay and others have said, we are not debating abortion today. I recognise that some deeply disagree, but public opinion and that of Parliament are settled on the issue. The Abortion Act 1967 has been in place for almost 60 years, and support for women’s bodily autonomy has only increased since then. However, a small number of those who oppose that are actively attempting to compromise women’s ability to exercise a hard-fought-for right. Those are creeping attempts to bring the tactics of American culture wars to Scotland.

Today, we have the opportunity to reject those attempts, to protect women who are seeking abortion and to pass the principle that Scotland should set up safe access zones around our abortion clinics.


Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I congratulate Ms Mackay on her leadership on the subject—as I did in my intervention. I also thank action groups such as Back Off Scotland and other stakeholders, and I thank the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee for its scrutiny.

When I was first elected to this place, in 2016, within 18 months I had asked the first questions about safe access zones and had raised a number of questions and written several articles on the issue. However, it took the election of Ms Mackay to this chamber in 2021 for us to move the matter on to a statutory footing, which is where we are today. I am so glad that we are here today, and Ms Mackay should be profoundly proud of herself.

The issue is an emotive one that is often divisive, but it demands of us that we not shy away from the reality that is faced by those seeking access to safe and legal abortion services in this country. It boils down to this: nobody should be forced to cross a picket line to access intimate medical care. Scottish Liberal Democrats, among others, have been guardians of freedom of expression within the bounds of the law, but we are entirely clear that the bill is compatible with that tradition, so we are pleased to support it today.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service has said that 70 per cent of women in Scotland live in a health board area where protests have taken place and that, in 2019, more than 100,000 women were targeted outside clinics across the UK. I am not suggesting that all those protests outside clinics were harassment or that the protesters are guilty of harassment—I have no doubt that many people protest peacefully. However, women who are attempting to discreetly access this health service have reported being bombarded by questions and subjected to placards that show graphic and disturbing images and lists of misleading information about the impact on their health, much of which we have just heard about. Some protesters have even used tripod-mounted cameras to threaten and intimidate. One woman told Back Off Scotland that, when she spoke to protesters outside a clinic, she was accused of murdering her baby.

One of the defining features of Liberal Democrats is our passionate defence of civil liberties. Freedom of speech and the right to protest must always be protected, but that does not mean that anything goes—it never has. Where people express themselves has always mattered, and we have always restricted that expression where it might breach the peace in some way. All that the bill seeks to do is to ensure that anyone who is accessing medical care can do so without harassment, fear or judgment. It seeks to safeguard their basic right to medical privacy.

I know that there are those who oppose the bill for fear that it will trample over the rights of religious assembly and those who say that silent prayer should be permitted or exempted from the provisions. However, I have some faith myself, and I have spoken to several religious figures, and they have no such fears—they are okay with buffer zones. One chaplain told me last week, “God doesn’t care where you pray. He will hear you wherever you are.” So, why must that prayer occur on site, with all the attendant judgment inferred by the subject of that prayer? I think that Ross Greer answered that well in the scripture that he just quoted.

Some may argue that introducing buffer zones threatens that right to protest, but I reject that on several counts. They are not protests in the usual sense. Those picketing outside clinics are not seeking to change policy or the law or to influence decision makers; they are pressurising individual women and they are attempting to change their minds on the most personal matters of individual choice.

Choice is at the very heart of this issue. The right to choose is the fundamental precept of our attitude to reproductive rights and our policy around reproductive rights in this country. In the vast majority of cases, someone who has made their choice has not done so lightly, and they certainly do not need a nudge in the opposite direction at the very final step.

Anti-abortion protesters have the right to voice their opinion—of course they do—but that does not trump another’s right to medical privacy, and it does not include the right to harass or intimidate. It goes without saying that any discussion of a woman’s decision whether to have an abortion should be conducted in a safe and confidential environment, with the help of trained professionals who are qualified to offer the appropriate advice and support.

I note that a recent Survation poll showed that 82 per cent of Scots agree that protesters should be kept a minimum distance away from people attending healthcare facilities. I am very pleased to see that there is a broad consensus across all parties in support of that measure.

I still have concerns, as I have expressed in both my interventions, about the powers of the bill as drafted to offer ministers the ability to reduce the size of buffer zones if they so choose. I welcome the committee’s observation on that in its report. England, Wales and Northern Ireland did not hand such powers to ministers in the legislative instruments that they introduced to bring about buffer zones, so why should we? It is not necessary, and it risks undermining the bill. I am grateful to have met Gillian Mackay as well as Jenny Minto in recent months to discuss that issue. I look forward to working with them to find a way through and to ensure that the relevant section of the bill is proportionate and appropriate. We have to pass legislation for Governments years ahead of us as they may become, not as we would wish them to be. We must ensure that any amendment to the rights that we protect in the bill is subject to the will of the Parliament by affirmative procedure, if legislation is required.

Introducing buffer zones around clinics is a reasonable and proportionate step to protect safe and discreet access to abortion services in this country. I am very proud to offer the Liberal Democrats’ support to Gillian Mackay’s bill.

We now move to the open debate.


Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

This is a very important debate, and I thank Gillian Mackay for all her work, as well as her office, her bill team and the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, for getting us to this crucial stage.

Peaceful protest is a key principle of our democracy, and I know that everyone across the chamber agrees with that. However, protests targeted at women trying to access healthcare when they are at their most vulnerable are simply unacceptable and downright sinister. Praying for the souls of unborn children is a human right, and no one is arguing against that, but if those protests or peaceful prayer are located outside the entrance to a hospital, that moves the dial massively. I believe that those so-called vigils amount to the targeted harassment and intimidation of women. I understand that the protesters do not see it as that, but that is most certainly the effect on women entering clinics.

Singing, chanting and praying outside hospitals and abortion clinics throughout Scotland, with people often carrying lurid pictures, is designed to create distress. That is not freedom of expression; it is passive aggression at its worst, designed to heap blame on women and to emotionally blackmail them into feeling guilty and ashamed. On some occasions, the protesters distribute false medical information to suit their argument, and some of them target passers-by and patients by shouting and accusing them of accessing abortion services. That is cruel, unkind and unnecessary, not only to the women who are accessing healthcare, but to the healthcare workers.

Rape Crisis Scotland has stated:

“Anti-abortion protests outside clinics have a clinical, emotional and psychological impact. The activities of anti-abortion protesters cause distress and have the potential to cause trauma to those accessing abortion services.”

The tactics that are deployed involve targeting people attending the clinics,

“passing out distressing information in leaflets and pictures and displaying such messages on banners.”

Those actions may cause them

“to defer their treatment or purchase illegal abortion pills online from unregulated providers.”

That impact will be particularly acute for survivors of rape.

Gillian Mackay

Will Rona Mackay reflect on the fact that, because of how healthcare is delivered in Scotland, a whole load more services are affected by protests in Scotland than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, because of the campus nature of our hospital sites? For example, some of the protests can be heard in the neonatal intensive care unit at the Queen Elizabeth hospital, so the impacts on healthcare as a whole are much wider.

Rona Mackay

I completely agree with that. The unintended consequences of the protests are off the scale.

The view reflected that of many individuals and organisations that were concerned for the welfare of vulnerable individuals who are accessing healthcare services. The Royal College of Midwives responded to the bill, saying:

“abortion services are an essential part of women’s healthcare. Healthcare professionals, including our members, deserve to undertake their work without being harassed and abused.”

One woman told Back Off Scotland, which has run an excellent campaign in support of buffer zones:

“I went into hospital first thing in the morning and was faced with a group of protestors holding up placards. They remained there seven hours later when I left the clinic. My privacy and safety were threatened, and it was a deeply intimidating experience.”

I ask whether any of those people have any understanding of how difficult the decision to terminate a pregnancy is or the circumstances that bring someone there in the first place. Of course they do not. If protesters are seeking to change the law, why not do it outside the Scottish Parliament, where laws are made? Why not pray outside the Scottish Parliament?

The bill does not limit the ability to oppose abortion in other places. In accordance with the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights, the provisions of the bill strike a balance between the right to respect for private and family life and the rights of assembly and association, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Seventy per cent of Scottish women of reproductive age live in a health board with hospitals or clinics that have been targeted by anti-choice groups in the past five years, and the figure is on the increase. That is completely shocking, and that is why buffer zones around the entrance to a clinic or hospital are so absolutely necessary. Buffer zones are already in place in Canada, Australia, parts of England and the USA, so they are not a new concept.

I know that some people, including members and committee members who will speak in today’s debate, have concerns about people being criminalised for praying if they are caught in a buffer zone. Personally, I am not religious, but friends who are tell me that praying is a private activity that is usually carried out at home or with fellow worshippers in a church. Ross Greer could explain that far better than I could. To deliberately choose a location to press views on women who are at their most vulnerable is surely a far from Christian act.

I am pleased that members will back the general principles of this crucial bill at decision time today. As always, concerns and details can be fixed at stages 2 and 3, and the member has shown great willingness to accommodate everyone’s concerns in that regard.

Access to healthcare is a human right, so let us protect those rights for women at a time in their lives when they need support more than anything else.


Sandesh Gulhane (Glasgow) (Con)

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests as I am a practising national health service general practitioner.

It is important to stress the fact that we are not considering whether abortion services should be legal, nor are we proposing to change Scotland’s abortion law. We are talking about women’s access to healthcare. As a male doctor, I will obviously never undergo an abortion. Abortion services cater primarily to women’s reproductive health needs, and I cannot overstate the importance of respecting women’s autonomy and prioritising women’s access to safe and confidential care. That means that we should ensure that women can receive the medical care that they require without facing barriers such as harassment outside clinics.

In terms of general principles, to protect women from intimidation and potential emotional distress caused by protesters outside these facilities, I support the principle of the buffer zones. By safeguarding access to abortion services, we are upholding women’s reproductive rights and ensuring that women can make informed decisions about their healthcare without undue interference or pressure.

It is well documented why Parliament is considering the legislation—that is evident simply from hearing members’ comments today. Protests can intimidate women seeking a whole range of services at such clinics, many of which provide sexual health support, HIV testing and contraception. Protests impact our NHS staff working in the centres, who are forced to pass what amounts to an accusatory picket line at the start and end of each working day.

We have heard arguments that safe access zones would impinge on the right to freedom of speech or freedom to protest. For sure, people might have personally held views, but that does not mean that they have a right in every case to deprive others of their rights. That said, I defend the right of patient groups to demonstrate peacefully outside a hospital—for example, on the closure of services or if there were patient safety issues, such as in the case of NHS Tayside’s Professor Eljamel. I would also not seek to restrict the right of trade unions to protest. However, given that, during evidence at the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, the police told us that that might happen as an unintended consequence, I seek reassurance that that is clear in the bill.

Protecting the privacy and wellbeing of women accessing abortion services is at the heart of the proposed legislation. However, I do not think that the bill is quite ready. The proposed 200m safe access zones outside 30 hospitals and clinics across Scotland should deal with the real problem of harassment and intimidation, but we need to ensure that the bill is workable and avoids unintended consequences.

Take prayer vigils. Are we asking the police to determine whether the law is breached by a bystander who might be engaged in silent prayer? Are we criminalising thought? We must be clear how we police this, given that, during evidence at the committee, the police were clear that they would not ask somebody why they were at a buffer zone, and they clearly said that they were not the thought police.

We need to consider residential and business premises and places of worship that are within 200m of a clinic. No one is penalised for displaying in their window a flag or a poster of their favourite football team or political party, even if some people find that antagonistic. So, where is the line?

I am primarily concerned with defending women’s rights to safe healthcare and with protecting NHS staff. That is why I support the principles of the bill. However, as we take the bill forward, let us work together on the details so that we deliver good law.


John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Deputy Presiding Officer, I thank you for the opportunity to speak. For once, I mean that. I realise that my views and those of the people for whom I speak today are probably in the minority—possibly a very small minority, in the Parliament—but I believe that it is important that minority views are heard at Holyrood. It gives increased credibility to the Parliament and to all our parties.

I note that the Scottish National Party has long been a party that is a big tent, or a broad church. We are united by our commitment to Scotland, but we hold a range of views on many issues, including the economy and social policy, with some members being more liberal and some being more conservative. I want that range to continue. It does not mean that one side needs to defeat the other but, instead, that we hold a healthy tension and respect one another’s angles on things.

Some people have said that the bill is nothing to do with abortion itself but is purely about buffer zones or safe access zones. I disagree. The bill and the debate are very much about abortion. Others have said that I oppose abortion only on religious grounds. Again, I disagree. Fundamental to all this is the question of when life begins. Does life begin at conception, at birth, or at some point in between? That is more of a scientific or medical question than a religious one.

Will John Mason give way?

John Mason

Let me just finish this point.

I hope that it is possible to discuss the subject and bill in a calm and reasoned way, even though I accept that just discussing the subject of abortion can become very emotive and that there are strong feelings on both sides.

Elena Whitham

Does John Mason agree that the debate around abortion has already reached a settled position in that we have access to safe and legal abortion for all women who might choose to have that healthcare? The debate is about access, without fear of intimidation or harassment, to that healthcare by women who seek to avail themselves of such services.

John Mason

I will deal with some of those specific points later, but I hold to my point that what underlies the debate is the question of abortion. There might be a few people who are opposed to abortion but support the bill, but that is not my position.

If life begins at birth, or even at 24 weeks, then abortion, and the bill, are concerned purely with women’s rights and healthcare—as many members have said already today—so I, as a male, should probably sit down and keep out of it. However, if life begins at conception, we are dealing with two lives from that point on—the mother’s and the baby’s. If that is the case, the healthcare of both mother and baby are important. There are instances in which we recognise the importance of healthcare of babies before they are born. For example, the family nurse partnership programme talks about

“the first 1001 days of life, from early pregnancy until the child reaches the age of 2 years old”

which suggests that we do, to an extent, recognise the importance of a baby’s health before birth.

That is why I feel not only that I can speak today, but that I should speak and have a duty to do so, whether I find the experience attractive or not. I am an older man who cannot carry a baby or have an abortion, but I am elected for a range of reasons, one of which is to speak up for those who have no voice, or whose voice is not being heard. That can mean constituents who are poor or who lack education, it can mean children who need more support, or it can mean asylum seekers who speak little or no English. I believe that it also means unborn babies who certainly cannot speak for themselves, because their lives are important, too.

Some members have said that they are pro-life but will still support safe access zones because women should not be harassed or intimidated. I fully agree that women should not be harassed or intimidated, but I also say that there is very little evidence of harassment or intimidation near abortion facilities.

Will the member take an intervention on that point?

John Mason

I am afraid not; I am going to carry on.

With the number of abortions in Scotland having risen to more than 16,000 in 2022, it does not appear to be the case that people are being put off by vigils or protests. That number is set against the background of this country having an ageing population and of our society desperately needing more children and larger families.

I have twice visited a vigil—or protest, if members prefer to call it that—on the other side of a wide road outside the Queen Elizabeth university hospital in Glasgow. Those groups were made up of people who are mostly older and religious and who were quietly reading or praying. They offer support and information to women who are considering abortion. We know that, in some cases, women have not been fully informed about the options that are available to them, have not completely made up their minds, or might be being pressured by a partner or family member not to have the baby. I gather that, in recent weeks, some women have approached the vigil group, sought more information and decided to have their babies. That seems like good news to me.

As members can hear, I am opposed to abortion on the whole, which leads to my opposition to the bill—although I accept that the bill is aimed at only one aspect of abortion. It is therefore unlikely that slightly tweaking or improving the bill will make it acceptable to me or to others.

I raise the specific issue of silent prayer, which I have mentioned and others have discussed at some length.

Another point that is not dealt with in the bill, but that I think is relevant, is the age at which abortion is allowed. It has been set at 24 weeks for quite some time, but medicine and science have moved on and babies are now surviving at 23 weeks. Our current timescale is out of line with most European countries, which have lower limits. Therefore, we surely need, either in the bill or elsewhere, to review that limit.

Members will gather that, all in all, I am not supportive of the bill. At the very least, I ask members to think about the babies in all this. The mother’s healthcare is supremely important, but the baby is important, too, and someone needs to speak up for those babies, whether it is in Parliament or out in the streets.


Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

It is good that we live in a democracy and in a free country, where John Mason can come to Parliament and have his say. However, I disagree with Mr Mason and others who have, like him, joined protests. It is one thing to hold those views—he absolutely has the right to oppose abortion healthcare—but, as the committee heard in evidence and as we are hearing in speeches today, it is having a real impact on women in Scotland right now. I hope that we will hear more from their voices.

I join others in thanking Gillian Mackay and her team the hard work that has led to where we are today. Even with the support of the Scottish Government, it is really difficult to progress a members’ bill to stage 1. It is a huge undertaking, so I thank her for getting us to this point.

Of course, none of it would have been possible without the award-winning and groundbreaking Back Off Scotland campaign, which was launched in 2020, before the current parliamentary session. The action is long overdue. I think that we would all agree that the best ideas often come from grass-roots campaigners and people with direct experience of injustice and inequality. The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill exists because of the courageous and tenacious young women behind Back Off Scotland. It is an honour to know them—in particular, Lucy Grieve and Alice Murray, whom I am now proud to call my friends. Alice Murray and Lily Roberts are just two of the young women who have bravely shared their stories with the public and with Parliament—stories of running the gauntlet and facing loud chants or silent judgment. It does not matter how quiet or noisy the protest is—it has the same impact on women.

In the time for which Back Off Scotland has been campaigning, those young women have got a bit older, and Lucy recently got married. In that time, the protests have become more common. There has been a real escalation and, as Rona Mackay said, the activity has become more sinister. We have seen that at the Sandyford clinic, where people tried to board up access to the clinic. We have seen people gathering in huge numbers—sometimes more than 100 people—at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital in Glasgow. I have seen it in my parliamentary region, Central Scotland, where people have gathered at University hospital Wishaw—something that had not happened before, to my knowledge.

Like others, I am grateful to the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee for all its hard work, and to those who gave evidence. Those of us who are involved in the cross-party group on women’s health also heard directly from people with lived experience. As Meghan Gallacher said—we share the same region—we have had many emails from people with all shades of opinions, which are really important for us to hear. The testimony of women, their families and healthcare workers is really important. We have also heard from Dr Sandesh Gulhane, who can bring to bear his professional experience.

However, as my colleague Carol Mochan mentioned, there is also a trade union issue. I welcome the support from the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the settled position of the trade union movement in Scotland, which backs Gillian Mackay and her bill. The harassment is targeting not just those who might be accessing healthcare services, but those who deliver the services. Many of those healthcare workers might have had an abortion or experienced trauma in relation to pregnancy or pregnancy loss. That is the point: we just do not know what people have been through when they go through the clinic doors.

As Engender points out in its briefing,

“Anti-choice harassment outside abortion services in Scotland and the UK has escalated in recent years”,

and the activity is undertaken with the aim of obstructing, harassing, intimidating and stigmatising those who are accessing healthcare and those who are involved in the provision of healthcare. At the heart of the matter are the really important issues of bodily autonomy and access to sexual and reproductive rights. I am very clear that gendered harassment and intimidation are forms of violence against women and girls, and that they have to end. [Interruption.] Excuse me—I am struggling with a sore throat today.

I have made points about workers, about trade unions and about everyone being able to come to Parliament and have their say. In my final seconds, I want to mention Dr Greg Irwin, who has been a real ally to the campaigners. He is a paediatric radiologist who works at the Royal hospital for children in Glasgow and has often talked about the visible nature of the protests and the noise in the hospital environment—even though it is a big hospital, people can hear it. He has also talked about bullying of women in NHS hospitals today. That cannot go on.

I agree with colleagues that no bill will ever be the complete or finished article at stage 1. I welcome the on-going scrutiny of the bill and I will be happy to play my part. I urge all colleagues to back the bill at stage 1.


Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

I, too, thank Gillian Mackay and her team for all the work that has been done on the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland Bill). It is extremely difficult to get a bill to stage 1, so I say well done on that. There has been productive cross-party dialogue through the contributions that have been made on the bill.

The core intent of the legislation is to create safe access zones that would act as a buffer between women who are accessing safe and legal services at abortion clinics and anti-abortion demonstrators. The zones would exist to help to ensure that women can access the vital services that are provided at the abortion clinics without the fear or harassment that is often experienced through their interactions with anti-abortion protesters.

For context, the UK Parliament has already adopted similar legislation to create buffer zones around abortion clinics in England and Wales, through the Public Order Act 2023. I understand that, as is often the case with any issues regarding aspects of abortion, that legislation has created division and competing claims of the infringement of human rights.

Women must have the right to access healthcare uninhibited by the fear or feelings of judgment or harassment that they often experience. In many cases, such feelings that are caused by protests outside abortion clinics prevent women from accessing those crucial services altogether at a time when they are making what is often already a very difficult decision.

I have also heard the concerns of the bill’s critics, who claim that anti-abortion protesters would have their rights to freedom of religion and speech restricted if they were deemed to be acting in a certain manner within these zones. That would have them penalised for expressing their views. However, such arguments have often been based on articles 9, 10 and 11 of the ECHR, for example, and, notably, that argument was rejected by the UK Supreme Court, which, in its unanimous ruling, stated that similar legislation in Northern Ireland was compatible with the convention rights of protesters.

That is in addition to questions about the specific size of the zones which, as we have heard, falls between 150m and 200m, depending on individual circumstances. The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee has urged that Scottish Government ministers undertake a “human rights proportionality assessment” when making a decision to increase or decrease the radius of the safe zones. Consequently, the committee further recommended that the bill be amended to outline the process that would result in any such zone being extended or reduced, and to provide that any such decisions should be made in consultation with service providers and relevant stakeholders.

Along with my Scottish Conservative colleagues, I believe that women who access abortion services should never feel that they are subject to the harassment or intimidation that anti-abortion protesters outside abortion clinics often pose. The feelings that are caused by such anti-abortion protesters can have, and often do have, the effect of discouraging women from exercising their right to access healthcare. Abortion services are no exception.

Moreover, I believe in the right to protest, and people will still be free to protest outside the zones. That is because the bill does not set out to prevent anti-abortion demonstrators from exercising their rights under articles 9, 10 or 11 outwith these specifically designated safe access zones. However, their right to protest cannot come at the expense of a woman’s right to access healthcare services as she sees fit.

I will support the general principles of the bill this evening, along with my fellow Scottish Conservatives, and will work constructively on amendments to the bill. Ultimately, the bill is proportionate and strikes the right balance between guaranteeing women’s access to the legal and vital healthcare services that are provided by abortion clinics and the rights of anti-abortion protesters to express their views. I welcome further dialogue with Gillian Mackay and others from across the chamber on how we can make the bill better.


Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

When trying to bring about change for the purposes of campaigning and politics, I recognise that a compelling and often successful route to go down can be to divide into sides and ask, “Are you for us or against us, a hero or a villain, just, unjust, righteous or wicked?” However, as well as positively galvanising people behind what we believe to be the right side of something, that approach can on occasion stifle open, honest conversations and exchanges of views. It can leave folk with no space to change their mind and, at worst, it can hamper scrutiny.

As legislation progresses through our nation’s Parliament, curiosity about how things will work, exploration of unintended consequences and open, honest dialogue and scrutiny are crucial to allow us to do our jobs to the best of our ability. Although we are here to scrutinise safe access zones alone, I feel—as the committee convener, Clare Haughey, and Gillian Mackay did—that it is important to acknowledge that abortion is challenging to talk about; it elicits strong emotions in many of us. The decision to terminate a pregnancy is deeply personal for a woman, and it is only the business of her and whomever she decides to involve.

From the outset, I state that I agree with campaigners, Gillian Mackay and the Scottish Government that women should be able to access healthcare free from harassment, fear or intimidation. I will vote for the bill at stage 1, but I believe that further exploration of some of the issues raised in the stage 1 report are required. The debate gives us the opportunity to do that, as does the Parliament’s amending stages 2 and 3.

The committee heard from a range of people with differing experiences, views and perspectives on the bill, both in public and private session. I am grateful to them all. I acknowledge, in particular, the women with lived experience of the matters that the legislation deals with. Coming into Parliament to share personal testimony with members they had not met before was not straightforward. I admire the strength and generosity of those, both for and opposed to the bill, who did just that. I also thank the clerks and the participation team for the care and attention that they took in organising and supporting those important private sessions.

In our report, the committee recommended that the member in charge of the bill and the Scottish Government consider whether there may be justification for setting minimum and maximum requirements for the extension and reduction of safe access zones. That was to ensure a proportionate approach to the bill’s impact on human rights and to eliminate the potential risk of powers being misused by Scottish ministers. The phrase “misuse by Scottish ministers” might send hares racing and make a good headline, but I will frame it a little differently and ask colleagues on principle, as parliamentarians, how much power they wish to cede from Parliament to the executive.

The committee also recommended that the Scottish ministers undertake a “human rights proportionality assessment” before making decisions about reducing or increasing the sizes of safe access zones, and that such a requirement should be included in the bill, with some members being of the view that, when zones are moved further out of hospital grounds and into shared community space, that requires a further test of proportionality. Perhaps that touches on the points that my colleague Bob Doris made.

On the matter of silent prayer, there was a difference of views on the committee. I remain a bit unsettled about it, and I know that that is not the fashionable thing for a politician to be; I know that I should pick a position and fight ferociously. However, right now, I feel that an exemption for silent prayer may be necessary, because I want to avoid the criminalisation of private thoughts. I am concerned about the worry of those with faith who told us that they feel that they may be targeted for what they think and believe and not for their actions. That said, I also accept concerns from supporters of the bill that exempting specific behaviours may undermine the bill. As I said at the outset, I support the aim of women being protected from harassment, fear and intimidation as they access their right to safe healthcare.

I am very open to having further discussions on those matters. I hope that we can get to a place where both aspects are reconciled. If that is not possible, if and when I vote for the bill at stage 3, I will want to be clear that I have exhausted all avenues of resolution and can explain with clarity my decision to vote for legislation that, although it upholds important rights of women to access healthcare, impinges on views and thoughts that are not the same as my own but are perfectly legitimate to be held.

We move to closing speeches.


Lorna Slater (Lothian) (Green)

I welcome the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill coming to the chamber for debate at stage 1. I extend my congratulations to Gillian Mackay on her championing of the bill.

I welcome the tone of the debate, as well as the level of engagement and support from members across the chamber. The bill is about the right and ability of women, and anyone who requires such services, to access the healthcare that they need, free from fear that they will be met with judgment and shaming. It is also about ensuring that they are not subjected to intimidation by individuals or groups who wield placards and signs, or by people who attempt to impose their beliefs on others. Not only does such behaviour jeopardise the wellbeing of patients who seek access to healthcare; the Royal College of General Practitioners Scotland has concerns that protests outside premises could result in patients delaying their access to services or, in some cases, not accessing them at all.

In my region, Lothian, recurring protests outside the Chalmers clinic and the Royal infirmary of Edinburgh have become a familiar sight. The testimony provided to committees and organisations such as Back Off Scotland and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service reveals a distressing reality that is marked by intimidation, anxiety and fear among people who seek essential healthcare services. Such behaviours are, unfortunately, all too common and cannot be overlooked.

So far in the debate, we have heard Carol Mochan, Alex Cole-Hamilton and Sandesh Gulhane raise concerns on the point about trade unions. I note those concerns, but I note, too, that the STUC women’s committee has engaged with the bill and supports it.

The argument has been made that hateful conduct by individuals and groups can be prosecuted under the existing law. Extensive consultation has shown that abortion service users and providers continue to report experiencing harassment and distress outside healthcare facilities as a result of activity that is not addressed under the current law.

The introduction of safe access zones is not a new concept. In fact, it is a rather crucial step in ensuring the protection of individuals who seek healthcare services. Although Scotland is taking strides forward in that regard, it is essential to acknowledge that we are not alone in that endeavour. England and Wales, along with Northern Ireland, have already taken significant steps by introducing similar legislation to establish such zones. On 24 March 2022, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed the Abortion (Safe Access Zones) (Northern Ireland) Bill. The criminal offence that that bill established is worded similarly to that in the bill that is currently before the Scottish Parliament. Before it received royal assent, the Northern Ireland bill was referred to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland. The final judgment concluded that the offence was proportionate and, therefore, compatible with the European convention on human rights. The decision also specifically recognised that staff who deliver abortion services have a right, under article 8 of the convention, to be able to attend work without harassment, intimidation or abuse. That underscores the recognition of the need to safeguard access to healthcare and to protect individuals from intimidation and harassment across these isles.

The bill’s provisions are fair and targeted. They are not about denying people’s right to protest; everyone is entitled to express their views, including through anti-choice protests. However, the bill focuses on creating designated areas around clinics and facilities where such protests are restricted. That is to ensure that individuals who seek healthcare—in particular, women who are making decisions about their own health—can do so without feeling threatened or intimidated.

The zones aim to safeguard individuals’ safety, security, health and privacy. As someone who has access to the Chalmers healthcare centre because I live locally, I can attest that, when people choose that location for protests—outside a setting that provides healthcare, for whatever reason people might be accessing it—that can only be for the purpose of pressuring and intimidating people, adding trauma and distress on top of what is probably already a stressful day for those who are accessing healthcare.

The purpose of the bill is to foster a compassionate and respectful environment for all. Individuals are entitled to hold opposing beliefs regarding abortion, but they must recognise the importance of choosing appropriate venues for the expression of those beliefs. The bill ensures that protests should occur in more suitable locations, such as outside the Scottish Parliament, where the decisions on these laws are actually made, rather than at healthcare facilities where patients have a right to expect to access healthcare without judgment or intimidation.

I welcome the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee’s stage 1 report. Throughout its scrutiny, the committee has carefully considered the views of a broad cross-section of stakeholders both for and against the bill. In the process of reaching a view on the general principles, it has explored a range of scenarios that may arise if the legislation were to be enacted. It has concluded that the bill’s “provisions are proportionate” and

“recommends that the general principles of the Bill be agreed to.”

I urge my parliamentary colleagues to do the same.

I call Carol Mochan to close the debate on behalf of Scottish Labour. You have up to six minutes.


Carol Mochan

Thank you, Presiding Officer—I was fortunate enough to open the debate as well, so I will not take up too much of everyone’s time in closing.

In closing on behalf of Scottish Labour, I feel that it is important to thank members on all sides of the chamber for the debate. I know that the public will hear today that the Parliament wants to get this legislation right. In the chamber today, we have heard time and again how important it is that we uphold everyone’s human rights. That is the case, but those rights are not absolute, and the rights of women to receive healthcare are really important to us in the Scottish Parliament. The question is whether the bill balances those rights correctly. Monica Lennon and Rona Mackay reminded us of the reality for women who are accessing care, which is that, at times, they can find that views are expressed in a way that they find harassing.

It is clear that the Parliament has a responsibility to take action to make sure that women can access that healthcare. Scottish Labour members, like other members, acknowledge that people have differing views on the issue. That is why—as other members have said—it is so important that we have the opportunity to take evidence and scrutinise it, and to debate the issues in the chamber.

We appreciate the way in which all witnesses, in both the public and private sessions, gave us their views in a courteous way, no matter their position on the bill. Ruth Maguire mentioned that in her contribution. It is not easy, particularly if someone is coming to speak against the principles of the bill, but all of that was done in an extremely courteous way. As the committee convener, Clare Haughey, said, weighing up human rights should not be taken lightly, and the committee believes that scrutiny is so important. I hope that the stage 1 report reflects that the committee scrutinised the legislation, and the debate today shows how seriously we, in this place, are taking this particular bill.

As the minister said, we are coming together to find common cause on a very complex issue, and I appreciate members’ discussions today. As many members have stated, legislating in this area has to be done in a proportionate way to ensure freedom of expression and rights, including rights to access healthcare. Monica Lennon helpfully reminded us that it is not easy to complete the stage 1 process for bills such as this. In fact, that is why we have the other stages—so that we can all work together. As the member in charge of the bill said in her contribution, and as I am sure she will reiterate, if we work together, we can look at the issues that were raised by members.

Bob Doris spoke about protected premises and how to ensure that we future proof the relevant provisions and get them right, as some people have indicated that there might be changes in the future. In Alex Cole-Hamilton’s speech and interventions, he discussed the restriction, extension or reduction of the zones. How much power should we place in the hands of the Executive and how much should come back to the Parliament? We can discuss all those things at the next stage.

Meghan Gallacher and others spoke about enforcement and how we ensure that that is done absolutely appropriately and that our police force has the support that it needs.

I spoke about the fact that it is important to ensure that people have the right to undertake legitimate trade union activity in hospital grounds.

We discussed the issue of silent prayer, which was raised and, rightly, scrutinised at committee. We need to consider how we ensure that the bill is correct.

In closing, I say that Scottish Labour supports the general principles of the bill and we will vote as such at decision time. We welcome the good will from members across the chamber and, in particular, from Gillian Mackay. Again, I thank the committee, the clerks and the witnesses. We look forward to robust cross-party working through the next stages of the bill.


Tess White (North East Scotland) (Con)

The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill achieved cross-party consensus in the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee. I thank the committee’s convener and clerks, as well as the Scottish Parliament information centre, for their sensitive and careful handling of the bill as members heard evidence on its provisions. I also thank the stakeholders and witnesses who contributed to the committee’s scrutiny of the bill at stage 1.

Women must not be harassed or intimidated for exercising their legal right to freely access abortion services, nor for accessing other reproductive health services that are delivered on the same premises. The same goes for NHS staff, who must not be targeted simply for doing their jobs and providing women with the care that they need. As we have heard in the debate, the UK Parliament voted in favour of the Public Order Act 2023, which establishes buffer zones of 150m in England and Wales.

As my colleagues Meghan Gallacher, Dr Sandesh Gulhane and Annie Wells have confirmed, the Scottish Conservatives will support the general principles of Gillian Mackay’s abortion buffer zone bill at decision time. In doing so, however, we recognise that this is a difficult and complex topic. We also recognise that parliamentarians are increasingly making decisions about the balance of rights—in this case, the right to access healthcare and the right to protest.

As we have heard in the debate, those are not easy decisions. Against the background of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021, some members are understandably concerned about the precedent that the bill could set in relation to protest. Perhaps that should give the Scottish National Party pause to reflect on its policy agenda to date. However, the Law Society of Scotland does not believe that the bill is a slippery slope to curtailing the right to protest in different circumstances. The legislation is narrowly drawn, and the committee was reassured that any similar prohibition would require separate primary legislation and parliamentary scrutiny.

As a staunch advocate of free speech, I also recognise the rights of women who face an often challenging, personal and extremely private decision. They have a right to access reproductive healthcare unimpeded by protests, however peaceful those protests may be. They also have a right to privacy. Those rights should not be overlooked or ignored.

As Meghan Gallacher highlighted, it is a very sad fact that women fight every single day for their rights to be upheld.

I believe that Ms Lennon is seeking an intervention.

Monica Lennon

Apologies. The technology does not appear to be working.

I am enjoying Tess White’s speech. She is also an active member of the women’s health cross-party group. Does Tess White agree that, although it has taken quite a long time to get to this point, we have the benefit of being able to look at the legal situation in Northern Ireland? We had the Supreme Court ruling and, obviously, there is legislation in other parts of the UK. Is it helpful to colleagues in the Scottish Parliament when we are trying to get the bill to the next stage that we are not the first to do this?

Tess White

We know that the SNP Government has form for legislating outwith the Scottish Parliament’s competence. [Interruption.] Members should just look at the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. However, as Monica Lennon highlighted, the Supreme Court judgment in Northern Ireland demonstrates that the approach has already been tested. As we have heard, Scotland is the last part of the UK to implement buffer zones, so it is right that these measures progress with close scrutiny. I heard groans from across the chamber, but that is a fact.

We welcome the committee’s recommendation that post-legislative scrutiny will be key to the continued operation of the legislation once it completes its parliamentary passage. It is important that a review should be built into the bill.

To ensure robust and proportionate law, two further areas of the bill will require consideration, the first of which is the size of the buffer zone. At 200m, it is 50m bigger than the English equivalent. I welcome the minister’s commitment to reflect on whether that is proportionate.

The second area, as Sandesh Gulhane and Ruth Maguire highlighted, is the bill’s impact on silent prayer. Committee members discussed that at length. The key points include the human rights implications of policing silent prayer and the feasibility of enforcement. The stage 1 report reflects the differences of opinion that emerged on that issue, and we will certainly need to return to that at stage 2.

In closing—

Will the member take an intervention?

Ms White is closing.

Tess White

It nevertheless remains the case that women should not feel that they are being stigmatised or discouraged from accessing abortion services. Fear of judgment or intimidation should not act as a barrier to reproductive healthcare.

I call Jenni Minto to close on behalf of the Scottish Government.


Jenni Minto

As I set out in my opening remarks, I am privileged to support the bill.

As I explained when I gave evidence to the committee, I first encountered anti-abortion activity outside clinics during a trip to Oregon in the United States in the early 2000s. Since then, that type of activity has only spread. It is my sincere hope that the bill will send a clear message that women’s most personal choices are not up for public debate.

Once again, I thank the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, under the convenership of Clare Haughey, for its thorough consideration of the bill. I also thank everyone for their contributions today. As Carol Mochan and Lorna Slater highlighted, the tone of the debate is a tribute to the Parliament.

I acknowledge John Mason’s view. As Monica Lennon said, the Parliament and this country give us the privilege of being able to listen to opposing views.

I have been particularly struck by the consistently made point that everyone has a fundamental right to healthcare. The provision of health advice is for the health service. As Annie Wells noted, that can be done at a difficult time.

Rona Mackay and Tess White talked about the emotional and psychological impact on staff. That, too, has been central to the evidence that has been gathered when the bill has been debated.

It is important to recognise that the bill focuses on the needs of our healthcare infrastructure, so it is understandably different from the legislation for other parts of the country. We do not have stand-alone clinics; we have buildings that provide many different types of healthcare.

Sandesh Gulhane was absolutely right. I represent a rural constituency, and I can understand and reflect on the importance of safe and confidential care.

I appreciate Ruth Maguire’s comments. I do not think that polarised views help in an open and honest discussion. I note her points on the shift of power, perhaps, between Parliament and ministers. I also note her points on silent prayer and I would be very happy to meet her to discuss the issue.

Like Monica Lennon and many others, I would like to reflect on the courage of those who came to provide evidence. A lot of thought-provoking evidence was given to the committee. I note Monica Lennon’s point about loud chants or silent judgment, which is something that I have been considering. I thank Monica Lennon for the work that she has done in the cross-party group on women’s health and for her contributions to cross-party meetings that I have held, which I very much appreciate.

I have listened carefully to all the points that have been made this afternoon. Although time may not allow me to respond to every member, I will address as many as I can.

First, I turn to the call for safe access zones to be 150m in size rather than 200m, as is set out in the bill. I am not entirely sure that Tess White understood what I said. I reiterate that considerable work was undertaken between the consultation and the bill being introduced to ensure that that was the right size. We are working on that, and we will provide that information as we go on. I fear that, by reducing the zone size, we would fail to protect women and staff when they need it most. However, as I have just said, I reiterate my offer to meet members who wish to discuss that further.

One of the key things that we looked at when drafting the bill is the absolute point about balancing people’s human rights. Again, we have undertaken considerable work to ensure that the bill strikes the right balance on the protection of people’s fundamental rights. We believe that the bill strikes the correct balance between the rights of patients and staff and those of individuals who participate in anti-abortion activity outside healthcare facilities that provide abortion services.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

The minister mentioned a number of the concerns that Tess White gave voice to. On the issue of the policing of silent prayer, does the minister recognise that the people who engage in protests or vigils outside abortion services are, by and large, law-abiding citizens and that if we, as a Parliament, send a signal to those people that silent prayer outside those facilities is no longer legal, that situation will basically police itself?

Jenni Minto

What we have been very clear on is that “silent prayer” is not on the face of the bill; it is the issue of intent that is addressed. Megan Gallacher also picked up on that point. It is important to remember that the approach of Police Scotland involves the four Es—engage, explain, encourage and enforce—and in each case individual facts around the reason for an event will be considered. Each case may present different or difficult decisions, but it is not unusual for Police Scotland to make that kind of judgment.

The other area on which there has been a bit of discussion is trade union activity. The exemption in the bill is in recognition of the fact that protest activity related to workers’ rights might unintentionally influence people’s decisions to access abortion services or impede access to them, but that its purpose is distinct from pro and anti-abortion activity. I underline the fact that the Law Society of Scotland noted in correspondence to the committee that the bill is drafted specifically to avoid capturing union activity or any other protest activity that is not related to abortion.

I am pleased that the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee has concluded that the restrictions that the bill imposes are proportionate to its aims. Women should be able to access abortion services without unwanted influence, harassment or public judgment, and the bill can make that a reality. I urge every member to join me in bringing that reality a step closer.

I call Gillian Mackay to wind up the debate.


Gillian Mackay

I am really pleased to close the debate. As I have noted before, there is still debate to be had on the bill. However, I was hoping for some common ground today, and I am pleased to say that that hope was not misplaced. I am grateful to all those who have offered their support today. It is debates such as this one that show the Parliament at its absolute best.

Members across the chamber have highlighted the wider impact of the activity that we are seeing outside of healthcare settings. Rona Mackay reflected on the long-term impact on individuals, and Alex Cole-Hamilton, Annie Wells and Meghan Gallacher referenced the potential impact of protests on women’s decisions, which could include deterring them from seeking care. I thank Ross Greer for his theological lesson, and I fully agree with his points about false information that has been handed out. The committee highlighted that issue.

That said, I also expected to be met with robust challenge, and I mean it when I say that I am not disappointed to have been proved right. Challenge is a vital part of the legislative process. It is how we make sure that bills do what we want them to and avoid doing things that we never intended. I am grateful to everyone who has participated this afternoon. We have been able to discuss important and emotive issues with respect and civility, and I can promise that I will take forward work on the bill in that same spirit.

Given that I ran out of time in my opening, I hope that members will forgive me if I run out of time to address everything that has been raised. I am more than happy to meet before stage 2 to discuss matters in detail.

I have heard calls across the chamber to exempt silent prayer from the bill. I must support what the minister said in her opening statement, and her points are important for two reasons. First, prayer in itself is not an offence. That means that it is not possible to exempt it as one without potentially undermining how sections 4 and 5 are intended to operate. Secondly, explicitly exempting silent prayer could also have the unintended consequence of exempting other conduct that accompanied it, which could remove the operational discretion that is vital in protecting women and staff. Providing an exemption in order to allow the continuation of the presence and behaviours that we know are intimidating would undermine the bill entirely and betray the testimony that we have heard throughout the process.

I invite any member who would like to understand that in more depth to contact me. For now, I will simply note that an exemption for silent prayer was proposed as an amendment to the Westminster Public Order Bill in 2023, and it was rejected for very similar reasons. Likewise, there is no exemption in either the legislation that is now in force in Northern Ireland—the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Act (Northern Ireland) 2023—or the legislation that is currently being dealt with in the Republic of Ireland. The legislation in Northern Ireland also passed the Supreme Court challenge, and proportionality had been looked at in that regard. Including an exemption would make Scotland an outlier among the UK nations and offer less protection to women and staff.

I appreciate that the issue of the reduction and extension of zones has raised concerns. There has been some suggestion that maximum and minimum zone distances should be set and that further parliamentary scrutiny should be provided. Beyond the consultation amendment that I have committed to today, I am also committed to exploring what can be done to strengthen that aspect further at stage 2. However, I must also set out that the zones have to be capable of providing needed protection for women and staff, and must remain proportionate and not criminalise conduct where that cannot be justified. That, in my view, makes setting maximum and minimum distances unwise.

None of us can know how services will be delivered in the future or how anti-abortion groups may change their behaviour. Any maximum or minimum could, at this point, therefore, be arbitrary. In that case, the zones will not provide the protection that is needed. We could, for example, set 200m as the minimum distance. In the future, 100m might be sufficient for some or all sites, or we might see behaviour that requires a larger distance. We therefore need the flexibility that the bill currently provides to ensure that we can respond to circumstances as they are in the future. That is one reason why I did not include a provision for additional oversight, even though I am, as members might imagine, an advocate for a strong and powerful Parliament. We heard in evidence that the ability to move swiftly either to extend or to reduce zones for a variety of reasons is necessary. I am, of course, happy to discuss that with members in more detail.

I will draw my remarks to a close by thanking all members again for their contributions not only today, but since I first proposed the bill. Their support and constructive criticism have been invaluable. Ross Greer thanked Clare Bailey. It would be remiss of me not to not thank her, too, for blazing a trail on the issue and bringing safe access zones first to Northern Ireland.

Again, I thank all the campaigners—Abortion Rights Scotland, Back Off Scotland, BPAS and many others—who have been integral to the progress of my bill, as well as the trade unions and representative organisations that have met me continuously throughout the process.

It is difficult to quantify what the support from officials and from the current and former public health ministers, Jenni Minto and Maree Todd, has meant. They have helped to guide me through the process, and officials have put their all into the bill and have dealt with all the changes that we have made with the utmost grace, no matter how short the timescale.

I also thank the current and former First Ministers. Nicola Sturgeon backed the bill and offered me the support of the Government. At that time, Humza Yousaf was the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, and he made support for the bill an integral part of his leadership campaign and has provided me with consistent support since then.

Finally, my team and my parliamentary colleagues deserve thanks for supporting me in the phenomenal way that they always do.

As I highlighted in my opening speech, there are women who, when seeking abortion care, have felt unable to defend themselves in the face of activity that was designed to shame and frighten them. Today, everybody in the chamber has a chance to show that they are willing to work on their behalf to provide them with a defence, and I urge everyone in the chamber to take that chance.