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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 4, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 04 November 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones, Portfolio Question Time, Social Security Benefits, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones

I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-01767, in the name of Gillian Mackay, on abortion clinic buffer zones. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the campaign by Back Off Scotland for the Scottish Government to introduce 150m buffer zones, or protest-free areas, around clinics that provide abortion services across Scotland; understands that buffer zones around abortion clinics already exist in other countries, such as Australia and Canada, as well as some local authorities in England; believes that safe and legal access to abortion services is a vital human right; further believes that everyone who chooses to have an abortion, including those in the Central Scotland region, should be able to do so without fear of harassment, intimidation or abuse; understands that there have been concerning reports of patients across Scotland, experiencing intimidation and harassment from protesters when accessing sexual and reproductive health services, and notes the view that buffer zones would help to ensure patients can continue to access these services safely and without fear of harassment.

12:48  

I open the debate by recording my sincere thanks to all those who have worked so hard on abortion clinic buffer zones, including the Back Off Scotland campaign and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

I thank those members who have signed the motion. I know that support for buffer zones exists across the chamber and that I am not the only MSP who has raised the issue in the Parliament. I particularly thank my colleague Maggie Chapman, who asked questions about this at the start of the session.

I want to state clearly that this is not a debate on the morality of abortion. I hope that members will put their views on abortion aside and focus on the fact that the debate is about access to healthcare, which, according to the United Nations and the World Health Organization, is a human right.

I do not want to inhibit anyone’s right to protest; the Greens would never be in favour of such a move. People who feel strongly about abortion have many opportunities and platforms to share their views, but I feel strongly that it is not appropriate to do that outside a hospital or clinic. Everyone should be able to access healthcare unimpeded and no one should face harassment or intimidation while doing so.

Protests outside hospitals and clinics are widespread. BPAS is aware of seven hospitals and clinics that are experiencing protests, including Forth Valley Royal hospital in my region. Seventy per cent of women of reproductive age live in a health board area that has hospitals or clinics that have been targeted by anti-choice groups in the past five years.

It is not just people who are accessing abortions who are impacted. Anyone who accesses healthcare at premises that deliver abortions can be targeted. I will read out a few examples provided by BPAS of people who have been affected by demonstrators and protests. Here is testimony from someone who visited the Chalmers centre in 2021:

“I was a victim of sexual assault and had to book an appointment with Chalmers. Already blaming myself and terrified to tell anyone, I was 17 and completely by myself. A small group of individuals, mostly male, were standing on the other side of the road. I was repeatedly called out to by one of the men, and when I glared at him and ignored him, he called me a teenage murderer. I have never been pregnant. I have never had an abortion. I have never even used contraceptive medication, but they tried to publicly humiliate me for it. I felt threatened and terrified at a time when I needed protection and comfort.”

I have another example from the Royal infirmary in Edinburgh.

“I felt incredibly angry. At the time, I was pregnant with my second child. On attempting to engage with them, one of the group marched over to me and was extremely aggressive. He screamed in my face several times. He told me that I was going to get cancer. I had disclosed that I had had an abortion between pregnancies.”

No one should have to face such appalling treatment while accessing healthcare. Implementing 150m buffer zones around abortion clinics would allow women and people who are pregnant to access the care that they need without fear of harassment. It would allow them to enter and leave the abortion clinic without being seen or having to interact with protesters, affording them their right to privacy. Not affording people that right can prevent them from seeking the help that they need.

During lockdown, access to healthcare was reduced as resources were targeted at tackling Covid and fears about patient safety meant that people were discouraged from seeking treatment. It seems fair to assume that lockdown might have prevented some people from accessing abortions. As our health services recover, we should be encouraging those who need reproductive healthcare to access it. There is a risk, however, that faced with the distressing experience of encountering a protest when visiting a clinic or hospital, some will simply not go.

Polls have shown that the public is in favour of buffer zones. A poll conducted this year by the Scottish humanists showed that 82 per cent of Scots want to end targeted harassment outside abortion clinics. Buffer zones have also been successfully implemented in other countries. They are already in place in the Isle of Man, Canada, Australia, some local authorities in England, and in the USA.

My fellow Green politician Clare Bailey MLA is currently taking her Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill through Stormont. Scotland is behind on this issue. In England, Sister Supporter successfully campaigned for a public space protection order around the local Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing, London. That was implemented in 2018, and now the space outside the clinic is a harassment-free safe zone. The decision on that was subject to legal appeal in 2019, but it was dismissed by three Court of Appeal judges. There is therefore a legal precedent in the United Kingdom.

I am aware that there have been discussions about buffer zones being implemented by local authorities in Scotland. In February, the City of Edinburgh Council voted in favour of a motion to enact 150m buffer zones around abortion clinics citywide, following a 4,700-strong petition by Back Off Scotland, while Glasgow City Council has debated the issue of anti-choice harassment outside local hospitals. However, Scottish local authorities have stated that they do not have the ability to introduce buffer zones under the current law and progress appears to have been halted.

I believe that there is a risk that leaving it to local authorities to implement buffer zones could result in a postcode lottery, whereby some women are able to access abortion services without fear of harassment but others are not. I believe that a national approach is required. Therefore, I am very pleased to announce my intention to introduce a member’s bill on buffer zones around abortion clinics. I will be honoured to introduce such important legislation, and I intend to consult a wide range of individuals and groups to hear their thoughts on the proposal.

I want to make it clear that it is not my intention to target national health service workers who may want to picket outside healthcare premises. I am keen to engage with trade unions on the issue to minimise any unintended consequences.

I again thank everyone who has tirelessly campaigned for buffer zones. We would not have reached this point without them. I look forward to working with them and with members across the chamber to ensure that women can access abortions while being afforded the safety and dignity that they are entitled to.

12:56  

I thank Gillian Mackay for securing the debate.

Abortion is a legal right in Scotland; it is essential healthcare for women, and access to abortion services absolutely must be unimpeded.

Women and women’s organisations across the world have fought for the right to access safe and legal abortion for decades. Increasingly, international human rights law supports their quest, despite the current rolling back of rights that we are seeing in some places.

Safe and legal access to abortion services is a basic healthcare need. Anyone who chooses to have an abortion or to access sexual and reproductive health services should be able to do so without fear of harassment, intimidation or abuse.

As we know, abortion is legal here in Scotland, and women must be able to access abortion services freely and without harassment. The reports of patients across Scotland who have experienced intimidation and harassment from protesters outside abortion services, examples of which Gillian Mackay read out, are deeply concerning. No woman should be harassed or intimidated for accessing abortion services, and no woman should feel scared to access that vital human right because of protests or vigils taking place near abortion services. After all, according to Engender, one in three of us will use such services in our lifetimes.

In our 2021 manifesto, the Scottish National Party committed to supporting local authorities to use their powers to establish byelaws to create protest-free buffer zones outside clinics that provide abortion services. The Scottish Government’s women’s health plan, which was published in August this year, is the first stage of a long-term commitment to reducing health inequalities for women, and it pledged to improve access to abortion and contraception services.

As a former Women’s Aid worker, I have seen at first hand the emotional strength that is required of women when they make the decision to have an abortion. I have supported women to access such essential healthcare after they have had previous forced pregnancies, as contraception was forbidden by their abuser. Collectively, let us imagine having every aspect of our existence controlled by an abuser, finally managing to escape that hell, finding ourselves pregnant in a Women’s Aid refuge, perhaps with a few children in tow, making the decision to seek an abortion and having to run the gauntlet of a protest or a vigil simply to access lawful healthcare. Women who are already under immense pressure and about to go through an already traumatic process should not have to deal with anyone else’s opinion when accessing such healthcare.

Establishing byelaws at a local government level should be the simplest and quickest way to create protest-free zones around abortion services. If local councils can act in such instances, they should, but examples such as the recent attempts by the City of Edinburgh Council and Glasgow City Council to establish buffer zone byelaws highlight the need for clarity at a local level. It cannot be a postcode lottery. Right now, we must ensure that local government has absolute clarity and is empowered to take swift action to pass such byelaws to ensure that all women can access clinics free from harm.

As abortion rights are under increasing threat around the world, I was heartened to hear recently in the chamber the First Minister assure us, in her response to Monica Lennon, that she is open to exploring all options to ensure that women are able to access abortion free of harassment. I look forward to supporting her in that endeavour.

12:59  

I thank Gillian Mackay for securing this members’ business debate on such an important topic. Members of the Scottish Parliament will have differing views when discussing issues relating to abortion and abortion services. The comments that I make are my own; I respect the rights of others to disagree and to debate the points that are raised.

I believe in freedom of speech and expression, which should be cherished and protected. However, I do not believe that an individual or group has the right to prevent someone from accessing a healthcare service. Regrettably, that has been the experience of too many women in Scotland who have tried to access abortion services.

The debate is not on the issue of abortion or to argue whether it should be legal; it relates to the safety and wellbeing of women who need to access abortion services. Unfortunately for many women, they have felt intimidated, harassed and unsafe when attending a clinic or hospital. Some groups hold vigils, put leaflets into the hands of women, hold placards showing pictures of developing foetuses, prevent staff and women from attending appointments, and, more concerning, film individuals as they enter and leave premises.

I recognise that not all groups are aggressive when holding demonstrations. The question is: do they need to be there in the first place? We must put ourselves into the shoes of the young women who access services. How would we feel if we were greeted by such a reception?

BPAS has advised that, since the beginning of 2017, seven hospitals and clinics in Scotland have been repeatedly targeted, which has had an impact on people who have accessed services—not only those accessing abortion services, I note—and who have felt degraded and traumatised by the actions of those who have created a picket line outside facilities.

I have always agreed with the concept of my body, my choice, because I believe in freedom of choice. I also believe that private concerns such as abortion should not be a matter of debate for a woman who has already made an informed choice. After all, the woman having an abortion could be a victim of rape or domestic violence, or could be attending a clinic on medical grounds.

As Gillian Mackay has mentioned, Back Off Scotland is campaigning to introduce buffer zones outside hospitals and clinics to allow women to access services without feeling pressured to justify their decision. The zoning would apply to pro-choice and anti-choice groups, which creates a fair balance for those on opposing sides of the debate.

I sympathise with the campaign, given some of the first-hand experiences that I read while preparing for the debate and the experiences that Gillian Mackay outlined during her speech. As I said at the start, I support freedom of speech and expression, and groups could gather in other places away from hospitals and clinics.

The introduction of 150m buffer zones is supported by a wide range of groups. I hope that the Scottish Government considers it to ensure that women’s right of access to legal and safe healthcare is always protected.

I understand that this is a delicate subject and that members should treat one another with respect in discussing it. I welcome the campaign to introduce buffer zones and I hope that the Scottish Government will recognise its importance.

13:03  

I thank Gillian Mackay and the campaigners at Back Off Scotland for bringing this vital issue to the Parliament.

My colleague Monica Lennon has, unfortunately, had to withdraw from the debate. She sends her full support for the spirit of the motion and the work that has gone into highlighting the issue. Members know that Monica has shown firm commitment to the needs and rights of women, and I am pleased to pass on her message.

For some people, abortion is a difficult political issue and most people make their case respectfully and constructively. However, a very vocal and influential minority do not. Standing outside a clinic that is committed to helping people in dire need and shaming those people for seeking help is bullying, no matter how well meaning someone thinks that they are.

Those who seek to oppose a woman’s right to make her own choice are not a new quantity by any means. For decades and centuries, an ever-decreasing section of society has felt it incumbent on it to police women’s decisions and indeed their bodies. Fortunately, due to the efforts of so many brave individuals, that grip has loosened, in our country at least, to the point of being almost non-existent. However, I can only say “almost”, because it is still there, and this debate is about a current pernicious example.

For Dani Garavelli’s fantastic piece on the phenomenon in The Scotsman, she spoke to those who have experienced such intimidation, and they reflected on how uncomfortable it made them feel during an already difficult time in their lives. The discomfort is not solely reserved to them; it is also felt by those who work in the clinics, who are left feeling vilified and forgotten by the authorities, despite simply wanting to do their jobs.

As we have heard, these vigils, as the organisers call them, take place regularly in the health board areas where 70 per cent of women in Scotland live. It is difficult to quantify just how many women will have encountered them, as many will prefer to keep quiet. The groups behind these vigils are often funded by highly questionable US-based pressure groups with a history of homophobia, sexism and indeed racism. Why are they being allowed to intimidate women at a point in their lives that is always difficult, but for many is absolutely necessary? I can only imagine that, if the same sort of intimidation was happening to men, we would not need to have this discussion, as it would have been dealt with long ago.

Well, enough is enough. We all understand that a law is not currently in place to prevent such instances of intimidation, but that needs to change. I fully support Back Off Scotland’s call for the enforcement of 150m buffer zones around the clinics. I understand that other organisations will be fearful that that could curtail the right to protest in other instances, but there is no reason why legislation could not be introduced that reflects those nuances and does right by those who seek vital healthcare.

The women behind Back Off Scotland have first-hand experience of the issue. I was glad to hear that they have met Maree Todd to discuss it, but I am not surprised to hear that they came away with little more than reasons and excuses why it cannot be done or why it would be difficult to do it at this time. That is not how government should work. We cannot pass the buck on the problem and hope that it will go away. Equally, we cannot simply fob it off on to local authorities, which are already overburdened.

More and more people are becoming increasingly aware of the practice and we will soon get to a point, through the commitment of campaigners such as Back off Scotland and others, where the Government has no choice but to carry through. Why wait until then? Introducing legislation as soon as possible would alleviate the distress of so many women, and especially those who are already in vulnerable circumstances with little in the way of a support network.

Let us push forward and move beyond this very necessary members’ business debate. Members’ bills can take years to go through and are often unsuccessful. Let us make this a priority for the Parliament. It would certainly be a legacy that we could all be proud of and one that future generations would thank us for. Let us be brave. I ask the minister to do the right thing, and to do it now.

13:08  

I, too, thank Gillian Mackay for bringing her motion to the chamber for debate. Women in Scotland have a fundamental right to access pregnancy healthcare services and they should have the right to access them without harassment and intimidation. The targeting and harassment of women who access abortion services, as well as of those who provide them, is unacceptable and I condemn it completely.

Opting to end a pregnancy is seldom a straightforward decision for any woman, nor is it one that is taken lightly. Many women attend their abortion appointment alone, too. It is almost unbearable to imagine how women feel when approached, harassed or intimidated by anti-choice protesters in those circumstances, but that is exactly what I ask all members to do right now—to pause and imagine exactly how that feels for women. I hope that, when members do that, they will agree that all women must be protected from having their privacy invaded at such an emotionally sensitive time.

In 2019, more than 100,000 women were targeted outside clinics across the UK, and 70 per cent of women in Scotland live in a health board area where protests have taken place. Women have reported being followed, photographed, prayed at, jeered at, lied to and generally degraded. There have been instances where women have been prevented from entering clinics, too.

It is distressing for anyone to be hounded by strangers in the street but, at such a personal and private moment, the impact of those protestors’ actions has left already vulnerable women traumatised. Yes, we have the right to protest and the right to free speech, but we do not have the right to harass, intimidate and bully other people. Those are not reasonable expressions of free speech, and there is a difference between protest and harassment, just as there is a difference between free speech and misinformation.

Although anti-choice protestors may not intend to intimidate, there is no doubt that most women attending an abortion feel intimidated when so-called vigils are taking place. That is why I support buffer zones and why I support the Scottish Government’s commitment to work with the national health service and local authorities to find ways of preventing women from feeling harassed and intimidated when they are accessing abortion services.

Since a buffer zone was declared around a clinic in Ealing in 2018 through a public spaces protection order, the situation has improved dramatically. The clinic reports that instances of harassment have virtually disappeared since the order came into force.

Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with abortion, the issue is about women being able to access their fundamental right to healthcare. Introducing buffer zones does not impede the right to free speech. Protests can still be held, just not directly outside clinics. People can still contact their MSP and share their beliefs—they have every right to do so.

Ultimately, what women really need is to feel empowered to continue their pregnancy, not pressured by strangers in the street who know nothing about their personal circumstances. Women need to know that they will be supported in the changes that they make and that their life opportunities will not be impeded by choosing to continue with their pregnancy.

As Engender Scotland said,

“Access to safe abortion healthcare is essential for the realisation of women’s economic and social human rights.”

I believe, therefore, that the establishment of buffer zones is essential. Aligned with the Scottish Government’s women’s health plan, they will create a safe place for women attending clinics. I disagree with those who say that creating buffer zones should not proceed due to the threat of legal action. Doing nothing is not an option and women deserve better.

I am conscious of the number of speakers who still want to contribute to the debate, so I am minded to accept a motion without notice, under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Gillian Mackay to move such a motion.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Gillian Mackay]

Motion agreed to.

13:12  

I commend the exceptional quality of all speeches that have been made in the debate and praise Gillian Mackay for bringing the topic to the chamber. I also thank organisations such as Back Off Scotland for their work on the issue. I congratulate Gillian Mackay on announcing her intention to introduce a member’s bill on the issue, which I will be supporting.

I have supported the introduction of buffer zones around any healthcare facilities that offer termination of pregnancy since I first entered this place, five years ago. I have sought out meetings with anti-abortion campaigners to discuss that issue with them. They maintain that there is a clash of rights at the heart of this debate, which I reject entirely. I do not believe that one’s right to freedom of speech should come at the expense of a woman’s right to medical privacy.

Campaigners have said time and again that the facilities are not used solely for abortions or terminations. I would say to them that, in that case, they are making things worse. They are creating a picket line to cross for people who are trying to access the most intimate forms of medical care. They say that they are not trying to be intimidating and that they are not being intimidating. I am sorry, but that is not for them to judge. If someone is in what is possibly the most vulnerable situation of their life, the last thing that they want to do is cross a picket line where they are being hectored and intimidated by people of a different view to theirs.

This is not a debate about free speech. Protestors are entitled to their freedom of speech—of course they are. Gillian Mackay has rightly indicated the very many platforms that are available for people who believe that abortion is wrong. Nothing about buffer zones impedes that right. The right to freedom of speech does not mean that one has the right to intimidate people—it just does not go there.

The decision to terminate a pregnancy is very seldom one that is taken lightly. We know that there are situations in which those who are pregnant change their mind about the procedure, but they deserve to be supported in that change of mind—that reversal of decision—by staff who are trained to navigate the complexities surrounding pregnancy, not by those who want to impose their personal opinion or judgment, often through a form of intimidation that, as I said, effectively asks people to cross a picket line. As a society, it is our duty to protect the mental and physical wellbeing of our fellow citizens. There are no caveats to that very human obligation.

I am proud to say that my party has long supported and campaigned on the issue. There is no incongruity—I speak as a liberal—between creating buffer zones and protecting freedom of speech, as I have already covered. We need to protect some spaces in our society that are free from any judgment or intimidation—such as those medical facilities that offer, as I have said, the most intimate forms of medical care—and we have been campaigning on those rights for years.

Three years ago, I wrote to the then Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing following the picketing outside the Chalmers sexual health centre. I also give particular credit to my colleague in London, Sarah Olney, who, in March last year, tabled legislation in the United Kingdom Parliament that seeks to prohibit anti-abortion protests within 150m of abortion clinics—as Back Off Scotland has asked for.

I have met anti-abortion campaigners and I will continue to engage with them, but my party will fight for the existence of buffer zones, because what is happening is simply not good enough. As we have heard, 70 per cent of people in Scotland live in health board areas where anti-abortion protests take place. In 2019, 100,000 people attended abortion clinics that were targeted by demonstrations. The people who are targeted by those protests do not report feeling supported or helped; instead, they report feeling embarrassed and shunned. I am sure that none of us is comfortable with the knowledge that thousands of people in Scotland face such intimidation.

I support Gillian Mackay’s motion, and I will certainly support her member’s bill.

13:16  

I thank Gillian Mackay for bringing the debate to the chamber and for giving us the opportunity to discuss a sensitive subject.

I realise that some would argue that men should not have an opinion on abortion or speak on anything that relates to it. I might accept that if I was convinced that life begins at birth. That is the key point, is it not? If life begins at birth, we are talking solely about a woman’s body and her right to choose whatever healthcare is necessary and suitable for her. If life begins at conception, there are two lives from that point onwards—the mother’s life and the baby’s life. If that is the case—as I believe it is—someone has a duty to speak up for the baby, who has no voice.

I accept that this is a highly contentious and emotive issue, and that it can be difficult to discuss the matter in a calm way. However, I hope at least that we can all accept that either of those two positions can be validly held and that we can respect those who take a differing view on when life begins.

Moving on to the issue of gatherings, vigils or protests outside clinics or hospitals and to the question of whether we need buffer zones, I realise that there have been aggressive protests and even violence, especially in the United States and elsewhere. Having been invited to visit a gathering back in 2018, I attended one—this was almost exactly three years ago—outside the Queen Elizabeth university hospital in Glasgow. It was held across a fairly wide road from the hospital; as folk might know, the hospital occupies a huge site, so the gathering was not close to any medical facility.

From memory, there were perhaps a dozen people there, at most, and much of the time was spent quietly saying prayers. There was nothing that could really be called a protest, in my opinion, and certainly nothing loud, aggressive or even close to “harassment, intimidation, or abuse” as the motion suggests.

Will the member take an intervention?

It is probably better that I do not take an intervention. The tone of the debate has been good so far, so I will just carry on, if the member does not mind.

My starting point is that, if there is not any real problem in Scotland, why would we need legislation? As I understand it, Police Scotland has been asked, via freedom of information requests, about whether there have been any incidents in Edinburgh or Glasgow. Apart from two incidents that were reported at the Chalmers sexual health centre in September 2020—on which no action was taken—there appear to have been no serious problems in either city since the FOI requests began in January 2018. Therefore, the existing law seems to be effective, and local authorities can use byelaws if that is required.

Another angle is whether all women who go for abortions are able to make a choice—or realise that they have one. Evidence suggests that, at least in some cases, partners or family members are coercing pregnant women into having an abortion when they do not really want to do that.

After coverage of the subject in the media a few weeks ago, a woman contacted me. I will quote her for the rest of my speech:

“we are there … for the women who are, in their heart of hearts, not at peace about going ahead with an abortion. They need a last-minute life line—many women literally pray for a ‘sign’ that they should keep their baby”.

She continues:

“There are many women in this position (and I was one of them at the age of 20). These women often live with torment and regret for the rest of their lives. I have met one woman during the vigil (in her sixties) who said unequivocally that abortion had ruined her life. She has had 4 decades of trauma.”

She further says:

“I, myself had 3 decades of various problems … My experience of the NHS was that as soon as I expressed doubt about going ahead with the pregnancy I was put on a conveyer belt all the way to the termination. We really need to hear the other side of the debate in parliament”.

13:20  

I thank my colleague Gillian Mackay for bringing the motion to the Parliament and Back Off Scotland for the work that it does to protect women from harassment.

I also put on record my solidarity with, and support for, all women who have experienced targeted harassment outside abortion clinics. Accessing an abortion is a vital form of healthcare. Abortions are not only a fundamental human right but, in many cases, life-saving. That is why I was horrified to see anti-abortion protesters outside hospitals in Scotland and, in particular, in Glasgow, which I represent. Harassment, intimidation and abuse are always unacceptable but they are particularly vile at a time that is often deeply distressing for the person who is attending the clinic. The introduction of buffer zones around abortion clinics is desperately and urgently needed.

As Engender has said, unlike typical protests against states, or typical organisational action, the presence of anti-abortion campaigners at services directs disruption at individual women and their predetermined course of action. Women who experience multiple forms of discrimination might encounter harassment not only underpinned by sexism, but imbued with racism, ageism and ableism. Campaigners frequently carry materials that are directed at individual women urging them to avoid abortion. Those materials often have extremely distressing images and messages. Worryingly, some of the material is also inaccurate.

The presence of protesters or vigils outside clinics that provide abortion services not only affects the women who access abortions, but harms the staff and other patients who seek sexual and reproductive health services, from contraception to sexually transmitted infection checks. That can dissuade people from accessing vital and urgent treatment.

There are countless, varied and personal reasons why people access abortions, but one thing is certain: those women should not be shamed outside hospitals for having done so. I wonder whether the protesters outside hospitals have stopped to think about the women whom they are harassing at that moment. Have they considered the impact that forcing a woman to complete a pregnancy against her will could have on her physical and mental health?

As a disabled woman, I know only too well what it is like to be denied access to healthcare, including to have people tell me what I should and should not do with my body. I cannot begin to describe how dehumanising it is to have people subjugate my bodily autonomy.

We need to guarantee that people are free to make decisions without harassment, coercion or intimidation when they access services. People who argue against abortion rights have claimed in some cases that people who have abortions would later regret the decision. However, studies show that almost all women who have an abortion later say that it was the right choice.

It is important to note that reducing access to abortion, or making it more difficult or intimidating to access it, does not decrease demand for it. Evidence shows that, when access is restricted, it leads to a higher rate of unsafe abortions, which has devastating consequences. Across the globe each year, there are around 47,000 deaths due to unsafe abortions. That is why the protests outside our hospitals are so abhorrent and why it is crucial that women are able to access free, safe and legal abortions without harassment.

As a nation, Scotland prides itself on values such as liberty, equality and respect for human rights. As a Parliament, it is our responsibility to uphold and protect those values in law. That means that it is our job to ensure that people have access to abortions freely and safely without fear of harassment. It is their human right and it is integral to achieving gender equality. Introducing 150m buffer zones around abortion clinics is one way in which we can do that and ensure that people across Scotland can access abortion care without the needless extra pain and distress that is being inflicted on them.

I wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care almost a month ago to ask if and when the Government will implement buffer zones. I hope that the Government will give me an answer soon and treat the issue with the urgency that it deserves. We have the power to act now to protect women’s human rights, and I urge the Government to do so.

13:25  

I thank my colleague Gillian Mackay for lodging this important motion for debate. I echo her remarks, and those of other people, about the work that Back Off Scotland and others have done to raise awareness of the issue. I am of course delighted that she will lodge a member’s bill on the issue and take it through Parliament—well done, you.

Earlier this session, I asked the minister what the Scottish Government could do, other than support local authority byelaws, to create protest-free buffer zones outside clinics that provide abortion services. The answer that I got was a little bit disappointing, because it simply reiterated the local authority byelaw mechanism. Although I am pleased that the programme for government outlines a clear commitment that the Government will support any local authority that wishes to use byelaws in that way, we have to do more.

As a Green, I believe passionately in the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most local level that is consistent with their resolution. Local decision making and local empowerment are central to my politics. So, on the face of it, it may seem appropriate for local authorities to have the powers over the issue that we are discussing today. However, the key part of the definition of subsidiarity that is relevant today is the bit about the appropriateness of the level of decision making.

As Gillian Mackay and others have outlined, this is about access to healthcare. It is about a fundamental right. I do not want that right to be contingent on geography. If we believe—as it seems that most of us do—that all people in Scotland should have the legal right to make choices about their reproductive health and must be able to access health care without intimidation, coercion, harassment or stigmatisation, then we have the obligation to act, regardless of the views of any local authority. We would not find it acceptable if people of colour in one part of Scotland were protected by anti-racist legislation while people of colour in another part of Scotland were not.

To pick up on the comments that were made in a previous contribution, just because Police Scotland does not have a long list of examples of harassment or intimidation, it does not mean that it does not happen. We know that it does. We also know only too well that, sometimes—especially on issues that affect women, such as this one—women do not go to the police and do not report things. That is therefore not an excuse not to act.

We need a national approach. We need buffer zones outside all hospitals and clinics, and we need them urgently. It should never be acceptable for people to be harassed, bullied or stigmatised as they access healthcare. Such buffer zones will also allow the healthcare professionals who work in those facilities—whether or not they have anything to do with abortion services—to go to and from their work without harassment, bullying or stigmatisation. That is a right that all workers should be able to rely on.

I look forward to supporting Gillian Mackay as she works with people across the chamber and across Scotland on her member’s bill. We must legislate to protect the rights of people to have their safety, wellbeing, privacy and dignity protected.

13:28  

I thank Gillian Mackay for bringing this important debate to the chamber. I also commend her for the tone that she is taking in approaching the debate. It is important to say that it does not really matter what our view on abortion is—the issue is about the fact that women making difficult decisions should not be intimidated or prevented from accessing healthcare.

I also put on record that I respect the tone and contribution of John Mason, who holds a different view. However, I ask him to consider this point. If women are looking for a sign when making a difficult decision, I hope that we can agree that that sign can never be someone screaming in a woman’s face and that it can never be a woman feeling intimated in any way. I hope that we can agree on that point.

The decision to have an abortion is not one that any woman takes lightly. There are many reasons why women want to choose that route, but that is not what the debate is about. At such a difficult time, women do not need to hear the judgment of people who do not know or understand their personal circumstances.

The Back Off Scotland campaign says that it accepts, as I do, campaigners’ right to speak out against abortion, but that those campaigners should not be allowed to target and force their views on women attending appointments. The co-founder and director of the campaign, Lucy Grieve, has said:

“We support freedom of speech and the freedom to protest. While we are all pro-choice”

in the campaign,

“we understand people have different views. But go to parliament, don’t stand outside clinics.”

She thinks that doing so is “inappropriate”, saying:

“You can’t politicise someone’s body when they are going for a legal medical procedure.”

Research by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service has found that, in the past five years, there has been an anti-abortion presence at 42 clinics in England and Wales, and that 100,000 pregnant women were subjected to anti-choice harassment in 2019 alone. Moreover, as other members have said, seven hospitals and clinics in Scotland—Aberdeen maternity hospital, Chalmers sexual health centre in Edinburgh, Ninewells hospital in Dundee, Glasgow royal infirmary, Forth Valley royal hospital in Larbert, Queen Elizabeth university hospital and the Edinburgh royal infirmary—have been targeted repeatedly since the beginning of 2017 by anti-choice groups standing outside clinic and hospital entrances and displaying signs with graphic images.

I have seen many of those graphic images. Although I have never been in this particular situation myself, I have been subjected to what I thought was totally inappropriate treatment when an anti-abortion group leafleted my entire street and neighbours with such images. I was never asked to explain my position on this matter—indeed, I think that this is the first time that I have spoken on it. I want to emphasise that I have always been concerned about the tactics of some groups that go too far. We can disagree on things, but some lines have to be drawn.

Many women have talked about feeling targeted and alone and finding the experience deeply intimidating. Gillian Mackay’s proposal for a member’s bill on buffer zones is, I think, the right approach, and I am likely to support it. It is time to recognise that it is not acceptable to harass women into making a different decision. People have the right to protest and, like everyone else here, I will stand up and enthusiastically defend that right with regard to what is a very sensitive issue. However, no one has the right to bully, harass or scream in women’s faces, and for that reason we might need to take action to protect the women who make those very difficult choices.

13:32  

First, I point out that we are not here today to debate whether abortion should be available to people who want or need it; instead, we are debating whether people exercising their right to choose and their bodily autonomy should be able to do so without threat of harassment or abuse. That anyone would argue against that is, to me, abhorrent and unforgivable, but that does not stop the usual suspects using the debate on this incredibly important, worthy and apparently necessary motion lodged by Gillian Mackay to remind us that they are still waiting in the wings to remove our rights.

I am very grateful to Gillian Mackay for securing this debate, and I make it clear that I have nothing but contempt for those who are loudly and unashamedly seeking to hijack it to pursue their agenda of policing my body and the bodies of others. I also remind my Scottish National Party colleagues that we are a progressive social democratic party. I do not know what social democracy means if it does not include defending reproductive rights. Our clear policy is that abortion is a legal right in Scotland and that we will protect it.

Abortion is a deeply personal and often traumatising decision and experience. It is disturbing to read a Back Off Scotland activist say that in that moment of trauma she found herself focusing more on the looming need to walk past a group of hostile protesters rather than the process that she had been through, but this is a situation that countless women across the country are facing and it needs our urgent attention.

Freedom of speech, which has been mentioned a lot in the debate, is an important concept, but it is dangerous if people do not understand what it means. People are absolutely free to think what they like, to speak up on their views on policy and to protest Government decisions. However, there is a difference between deciding that abortion is not for you and rocking up to a clinic to harass and judge those who chose differently. There is a difference between having personal views and showing up to Parliament as a legislator seeking to restrict the freedom of others and prevent them from exercising freedom of choice. There is a difference between exercising your personal freedom and restricting the ability of others to do the same. I would never advocate for forcing abortion upon someone. Equally, I will always fight against forcing pregnancy and childbirth upon someone.

We must be clear that these people are not protesting against policy. They are standing outside hospitals, not Parliaments. They are not harmlessly and peacefully making their views heard. They are violently preventing people from accessing healthcare and harassing vulnerable patients as they walk towards what should be a place of care and safety. However quietly they claim to pray, the act of praying at someone while they access health services or trying to persuade a stranger whose individual situation they know nothing about to carry a child because that is their purpose is disgusting however you spin it.

Whether it is someone seeking an abortion, staff caring for patients or people accessing a clinic that offers abortion services to seek help with sexual assault or another medical issue, we know that protecting them is the right thing to do. Let us not leave it up to local authorities to decide whether they fancy protecting human rights. Acting is within our power in this place, it is within the commitments of the governing party’s manifesto, and it is within our duty to our constituents. I plead with the women’s health minister to act.

Thank you, Ms Roddick. I call the minister to respond to the debate. Ms Todd, you have around seven minutes.

13:36  

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I thank Gillian Mackay for lodging the motion, and I thank members for their contributions to the debate.

As many members have said, abortion is an issue on which there can be quite polarised views, but we can all agree that we do not want to see people being harassed or intimidated when they are accessing healthcare services. Women in Scotland should have access to abortion services as part of routine care, free from stigma. Abortion is a very personal decision, so for a woman to face scrutiny in that way when accessing the service after she has made her decision is incredibly difficult. Our programme for government and “Women’s Health Plan—A plan for 2021-2024” include undertakings on that, which I hope indicates the importance that we attach to the issue.

I appreciate that many of the people who attend protests or vigils say that they do not aim to intimidate or harass women who seek an abortion. However, the fact remains that some women are reporting feeling harassed or intimidated when they access the services; we have heard many accounts of that today. When I met members of Back Off Scotland in September to hear about their campaign, I also heard about their personal experiences of accessing abortion. Theirs were powerful testimonies; I admire their tenacity in pursuing the campaign.

Therefore, I am very aware of the frustration in the chamber, and on the part of campaigners, that more progress has not been made on the issue. However, I am afraid that there are no easy solutions. I know that Back Off Scotland and many MSPs here would like to see legislation to create buffer zones to ban gatherings, vigils or protests around all abortion services in Scotland. I totally understand the motivation behind such calls and I sympathise with the concerns that have been raised.

However, it is important that any action that is taken is proportionate and balances the rights, under the European convention on human rights, of people who access healthcare and people who attend vigils or protests. Patients should be able to access healthcare without feeling intimidated or harassed, but we must, at the same time, recognise the rights of people to protest peacefully and to express their views.

I appreciate the point that has been made that where the protests or vigils take place is important and can be distressing for patients. However, we must also take into account that they are focused on a limited number of locations—currently in Edinburgh and Glasgow—rather than affecting all abortion clinics in Scotland.

Although we believe that buffer zones can be justified in certain circumstances, the Scottish Government does not consider that imposing blanket buffer zones around all abortion clinics would be appropriate.

Does the minister recognise that, as per the Back Off Scotland briefing that we received, 70 per cent of Scottish women live in a health board area in which there is a hospital or clinic that has been targeted by anti-choice groups in the past five years?

I recognise that, but members will be aware that our view is that byelaws are the most appropriate way to tackle the issue, when making of a byelaw can be justified in the specific circumstances of a particular case. That is because byelaws can be tailored to local circumstances. It is also the fastest way of dealing with such issues, because pursuing primary legislation takes time.

In relation to targeted measures and byelaws, does the minister agree that groups could move to other areas if such byelaws were to be introduced for an area, and that therefore, instead of tackling the issue throughout Scotland, we would be moving the issue between areas?

I am aware of that concern, which was raised with me at the meeting in September.

The former Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, Joe FitzPatrick, wrote to all local authority chief executives in May 2019 to make them aware of the option of using byelaw powers when appropriate, but I am aware that some local authorities have taken a different view. I will seek to discuss the issue further with them, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and other stakeholders, because I am determined to find a way forward so that we can limit the impacts of protests or vigils on women who are accessing services. I assure Meghan Gallacher that officials have been in discussion with COSLA and local authorities for some time on the issue, and that I hope to continue that dialogue.

It is worth noting that the restrictions that the motion refers to that are in place in England are also local rather than national. The small number of abortion clinic buffer zones in England have been put in place by local authorities using public spaces protection orders. Those are similar to our byelaws in that they can be made where local circumstances justify such a measure. The United Kingdom Government carried out a review of the issue in 2017 for England and Wales and concluded that the local approach remained appropriate.

I am struggling to understand the circumstances in which it would be appropriate not to legislate to have a buffer zone. Could the minister explain that further?

The precedent in the UK is that such measures are introduced on a local basis. We have looked at other countries’ legislation; I have mentioned before that there are broad-scale buffer zones in countries including Australia and Canada, but in those countries the legislation is at state level rather than at federal level. We must also note that those countries are subject to their own legal systems.

We need to consider the position in Scotland based on the circumstances and facts that are presented in each case and in the context of our law. It is useful to look around the world and the UK—I will continue to do so as I seek to find a way forward—but, although we are keen to make progress on the issue, the Scottish Government does not feel that a national ban is an option.

Similarly, we know that local authorities are unlikely to make byelaw proposals at the current time. We will consider what other avenues might be available to us to ensure that women can access abortion services without feeling harassed or intimidated. As part of that work we will consider other types of protests that take place outside healthcare facilities, such as those that take place outside vaccination clinics. I acknowledge the strength of feeling on the issue. We want to find a way to ensure that women do not feel harassed or intimidated when accessing the services.

I look forward to Gillian Mackay’s member’s bill being introduced and would be happy to discuss it with her. I would need to see the bill before forming an opinion, but I am clear that the Government supports the principle of protected spaces, which is why we support use of byelaws.

I do not pretend that it will be easy, but I relay the message to members in the chamber and all those who are listening that we will continue to seek to find a way forward.

13:45 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—