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

April 29, 2024

This week sees the stage-one debate on buffer zones legislation in Scottish parliament. [NB. this vote passed by 123 votes to 1.] We caught up with Scottish Greens MSP Gillian Mackay, who proposed the bill, to talk about why safe access to abortion services is so important.

Hi Gillian, can you explain what buffer zones are and why we need them?

In recent years, Scotland has seen an increase in anti-abortion demonstrations outside healthcare facilities. That includes include vigils, protests, and the display of banners and signs with anti-abortion imagery. Many of these demonstrations are part of wider international anti-abortion movements.

The evidence gathered during my consultation shows that the presence of anti-abortion activists is intimidating and disruptive to both patients and providers. It can also deter patients from seeking necessary medical attention, so it poses a risk to their physical health, too.

The idea of buffer zones is to establish safe-access areas around facilities offering abortions. Within those areas, these kinds of demonstrations would be a legal offence.

Within the safe-access zones, it would be an offence for individuals to engage in any actions that could influence someone’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate abortion services. That could involve displaying anti-abortion signs, protesting about abortion, or obstructing entry.

Gillian Mackay MSP

How would the new law work in practice?

The bill would create 200-metre zones around hospital sites that provide abortion services. The list of protected premises would include anywhere designated as an abortion service provider under the 1967 Abortion Act.

Within these zones, it would be an offence for individuals to engage in any actions that could influence someone’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate abortion services. That could involve displaying anti-abortion signs, protesting about abortion, or obstructing entry to premises. Those found guilty would face fines as punishment.

What stage of the process have we reached?

The bill is currently at Stage One (General Principles). During this phase, a committee examines the bill and invites public input. The committee then reports back on what it found and states whether it supports the general principles of the bill. The committee’s report on buffer zones was published on 18 April. It expresses unanimous agreement with the general principles of the bill.

Today is the day of the stage-one debate, when MSPs have a chance to respond to the findings of the report and discuss the general principles further. Later, during stage two, MSPs can propose amendments to be debated and decided by committee. A new version of the bill, including any amendments, will then be published. Finally, during stage three, MSPs can propose and vote on further amendments. Then there’s a final debate and vote on the bill, followed by royal assent.

I have taken people’s concerns about freedom of expression and religion very seriously….The bill might actually have a positive impact for people of faith seeking abortions, who can feel disproportionately judged by protestors.

Gillian Mackay MSP
Gillian Mackay MSP speaks at the Humanist Society Scotland conference in 2023.

“I have taken people’s concerns about freedom of expression and religion very seriously….The bill might actually have a positive impact for people of faith seeking abortions, who can feel disproportionately judged by protestors.”

Gillian Mackay MSP

What would you say to those who believe buffer zones restrict people’s right to freedom of expression and religion?

I have taken people’s concerns about freedom of expression and religion very seriously. As part of the consultation phase of the bill, the Scottish government conducted an Equality Impact Assessment. This found that the legislation would only affect people’s freedom of belief within certain, very specific areas, so it would not prohibit people from expressing views on abortion in other contexts. The assessment also stated that the bill might actually have a positive impact for people of faith seeking abortions, who can feel disproportionately judged by protestors.

In the past, the Scottish Government has established a working group to consider non-legislative options for protecting safe access to abortion services. But none of the options were considered robust enough to achieve the outcome we want. None of them would have allowed a consistent nation-wide strategy either. In any case, the approaches considered (using local authority byelaws or existing police powers, relying on mediation and enhanced guidance) all involved using existing laws. These have clearly not worked to stop the protests so far.

As an advocate for reproductive rights, I firmly believe that the next crucial step in advancing the cause is the decriminalisation of abortion. This is a move that many countries around the world have already undertaken.

Gillian Mackay MSP

When might we get buffer zones in place if the bill passes successfully?

I can’t give a guarantee as that’s a matter for parliament. But I hope the bill will be passed in the coming months.

What’s next for the abortion rights movement if buffer zones are created?

As an advocate for reproductive rights, I firmly believe that the next, crucial step in advancing the cause is the decriminalisation of abortion. This is a move that many countries around the world have already undertaken. The Abortion Act of 1967 is woefully inadequate. It fails to protect and ensure access to this fundamental healthcare procedure. It also lacks the safeguards needed to make it future-proof and its conditions make access to abortion hard for the most vulnerable. 

Despite lacking a written constitution in the United Kingdom, it is imperative that we take inspiration from nations like France and establish robust legal protections for reproductive rights. We need legislation that not only replaces outdated laws but also safeguards these rights from regressive measures in the future. It’s essential to create a legal foundation that enshrines the right to abortion as an aspect of healthcare in a way that cannot be easily undone or eroded.

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Images: Gillian Mackay at Humanist Society Scotland conference 2023. Photographs by Jack Donaghy.

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