An extremely long line of anti-abortion protestors outside a hospital holding candles, with a fence and trees behind them, pictured from across the road.

Health committee backs buffer zones but remains divided on “silent prayer”

Joe Higgins, Policy and Campaigns Officer

April 23, 2024

This week Holyrood’s Health, Social Care and Sport Committee published their stage-one report on the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill. We are pleased the committee has backed buffer zones but concerned about a lack of clarity on the issue of “silent prayer.”

In a new report published on Monday, the Scottish parliament’s health committee has unanimously backed the general principles of Gillian Mackay’s buffer zones bill. After taking evidence from a range of stakeholders, including Humanist Society Scotland, the Committee looked in detail at every aspect of the bill. They have now made recommendations for parliament as a whole to consider.

Humanist Society Scotland welcomes the findings of the committee. These include that safe access zones are a legitimate and proportionate measure to protect people accessing abortion services. The report rejected the argument made by opponents that anti-abortion protesters’ right to freedom of religion, expression, and assembly would be unfairly restricted by buffer zones.

The report rejected the argument made by opponents that anti-abortion protesters’ right to freedom of religion, expression, and assembly would be unfairly restricted by buffer zones.

Joe Higgins, Policy and Campaigns Officer

The committee agreed that minor restrictions on where anti-abortion protests can take place was a proportionate response to meeting the aims of the bill. Crucially, buffer zones would help ensure that women and pregnant people can exercise their own rights to a safe, legal abortion. They should be able to do this without fear of intimidation or harassment. 

However, we are concerned that the committee failed to reach agreement on the issue of ‘silent prayer’ outside abortion facilities. Some committee members even stated that silent prayer should be explicitly exempt from the bill. In our view, this would provide a clear loophole for anti-abortion activists to continue staging intimidating and inappropriate ‘prayer vigils.’ It would therefore severely undermine the ability of the legislation to protect staff and patients.

We are concerned that the committee failed to reach agreement on the issue of ‘silent prayer’ outside abortion facilities. Some committee members even stated that silent prayer should be explicitly exempt from the bill.

Joe Higgins, Policy and Campaigns Officer

The proposed bill has deliberately avoided specifying which acts would be outlawed within the safe access zones. Instead, it has focused on the intent of any action to impede, alarm, or distress patients and staff. We would strongly caution MSPs against introducing any exceptions to this approach. Such exceptions could render the bill unworkable. 

Next week (Tuesday 30 April), MSPs will vote on the general principles of the legislation at stage one. We continue to ask our members and supporters to contact their MSPs and urge them to support the bill at every stage. We need to see Gillian Mackay’s bill passed. Safe access zones must be introduced across Scotland as soon as possible.

You can read an article in The National about our response to the committee report here.

Support our campaign work, make a donation today

Our campaign work is funded by the generous support of our members and supporters. Support our campaign work and help to create a fairer Scotland and world.

Handwriting a letter

Join us!

Your membership will help to fund our campaign work to make Scotland a more secular, rational, and socially just country, and to ensure everyone in Scotland has access to humanist ceremonies to mark important life events.

Two people in a conference crowd laughing

Latest Related Stories

Black and white picture of Dr Lynsey Mitchell standing in a street. Lynsey is wearing a leather jacket and looking at the camera and smiling.

Decriminalising abortion in Scotland: future-proofing Scots law

Decriminalising abortion in Scotland: future-proofing Scots law
An abortion rights rally in Belfast in 2012. Protestors carry signs bearing slogans such as "rich women have abortions, poor women have babies." "legalise not criminalise," and more.

What Scotland can learn from the Supreme Court ruling on Northern Ireland’s buffer zone law

What Scotland can learn from the Supreme Court ruling on Northern Ireland’s buffer zone law
Gillian Mackay MSP speaks at a podium infront of a Humanist Society Scotland banner.

Humanist Society interview series: Gillian Mackay MSP on her buffer zones bill

Humanist Society interview series: Gillian Mackay MSP on her buffer zones bill
A long line of people against a wire fence. Some hold candles. The fence is covered in placards which are mostly not legible but some of which read "Rights for Women" and similar. The photo is taken from across the road.

Huge anti-abortion protest marks final day of Lent, encouraged by Paisley Diocese

Huge anti-abortion protest marks final day of Lent, encouraged by Paisley Diocese