ABORTION buffer zones are likely to be enforced by police, it was revealed as the First Minister held a third summit on putting forward a “robust” bill aimed at surviving potential legal challenge.
Following the Supreme Court ruling in July last year that similar legislation in Northern Ireland was within the devolved competence of the Assembly, MSPs have been emboldened to push forward with bringing in similar laws here.
Scottish Greens MSP Gillian Mackay is currently analysing over 12,000 responses to a consultation on her private members' bill, which would allow safe access zones to be put in place around women’s health clinics in Scotland.
The judgment means there is unlikely to be a legal challenge from the UK Government, such as in the case of Scotland’s gender reforms, but the legal battleground will instead be fought on by anti-abortion protestors and whether or not their right to protest under human rights laws has been breached.
On Tuesday, at Scottish Government HQ, politicians and representatives from campaign groups, the NHS and police, met to thrash out some of the details of the legislation.
Opening the summit, FM Nicola Sturgeon told attendees: “I think where we can say with confidence that where we are today is that we now think national legislation is not only the right thing, I think I was pretty clear at the last summit that I thought that was the preference, but post the Supreme Court judgment, we think that is a possible way forward.
“In fact I think that’s putting it mildly. We think that is the way we should now move, notwithstanding the detailed work we’ve got to do to ensure a bill is capable of withstanding and surviving any legal challenge.”
The FM added that the Scottish Government’s commitment was “very strong” to ensure unhindered access for women seeking an abortion - and pledged ministers would work "as quickly as we possibly can" to get the law changed.
Sturgeon insisted that the Scottish Government should expect that the legislation will see a legal challenge and therefore must “get the details right”.
Maree Todd, the women’s health minister, said that there were many different aspects of the bill which were discussed, and particularly if there would be unintended consequences for other protestors - for example healthcare workers who may choose to go on strike and picket outside of an NHS building.
Todd explained that while they are hoping to pass the legislation as quickly as possible, there are procedures in place in Holyrood to ensure that there is scrutiny of all aspects of the bill.
She said: “There's a process when you put a bill through parliament, a certain length of time it has to spend lying in parliament and you know, we have to follow all those processes, but there is no sense of dragging our heels on this.
“We have worked really hard on this, we built on momentum and we're making progress and everybody wants to see this happen quickly.
“Nobody wants women to be subjected to harassment and intimidation in Scotland as they access health care.”
Speaking to The National at the summit in Edinburgh, Mackay said she hoped she wouldn’t see another 40 days of protests outside of clinics over lent. An organised wave of action backed by anti-abortion campaigners is due to begin on February 22.
Mackay said the general consensus in the room is that the police should be in charge of enforcing buffer zones and whatever penalties are decided upon.
She explained: “I think there are issues around information sharing if it was local authorities that were taking that evidence.
“Police Scotland has a much more natural ability to share information of where laws are broken, and I think that certainly for me, that is my preference just for ease and ease of tracking where this behaviour is happening, who's moving around to different sites and where this is persistent.”
Many protesters are funded by the American right-wing, and one of the biggest organisers is 40 Days for Life, which Mackay noted many of whom have “very deep pockets”.
She explained: “There have been some concerns raised by stakeholders about potentially some of these groups almost being in a situation of paying to breach the zone, which is absolutely not what we want.
“We need a level of personal accountability for the people who are breaching the zones, and how do we balance that against proportionality in particular and it surviving any ECHR challenge is where that difficulty lies.
“There are certainly things still to be worked out, and that's why the stakeholder engagement is so important.”