A group of anti-abortion protestors outside an abortion facility in Glasgow, holding signs.

Wrecking amendments to buffer zones bill withdrawn but questions remain over “chaplaincy services”

May 28, 2024

Today, Holyrood’s health committee considered amendments to Gillian Mackay’s buffer zones bill. Several wrecking amendments were withdrawn but discussions are ongoing about the provision of “chaplaincy services” at abortion facilities.

Today, MSPs on Holyrood’s Health, Social Care, and Sport Committee considered and voted on a number of proposed amendments to Gillian Mackay’s Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill.

Several concerning amendments were put forward by Jeremy Balfour MSP. If agreed to by the committee, they would have rendered the bill unworkable, providing clear loopholes for anti-abortion protests to continue. We steered discussion on this issue, with The National reporting on our call for MSPs to reject Mr. Balfour’s amendments.

Balfour wrecking amendments withdrawn

Most importantly, Jeremy Balfour withdrew his Amendments 23-25. This is excellent news. Amendment 23 would have allowed protests when a clinic is closed. This would have placed staff and patients at risk at the start and end of working days.

Amendment 24 would have explicitly exempted silent prayer from the bill. As we have reported previously, the bill does not outlaw any specific acts within safe-access zones. Instead, it focuses on someone’s motivation to impede, alarm, or distress patients and staff.

Amendment 25 would have introduced a defence of reasonableness” for people charged under buffer zones legislation. This would have allowed almost unlimited scope for protestors to contest charges against them.

Legitimate chaplaincy services are already permitted by the bill. We understand the need to ensure this is beyond doubt. However, we would oppose any formalisation of anti-abortion activism by this route.

Questions over “chaplaincy services”

We are delighted these three amendments have been withdrawn. However, Mr. Balfour only agreed to withdraw Amendment 22, to create an exception for “chaplaincy services at protected premises,” on the basis that the government and Gillian Mackay MSP would discuss the matter further with him.

We believe legitimate chaplaincy services are already permitted by the bill. We understand the need to ensure this is beyond doubt. However, we would oppose any formalisation of anti-abortion activism by this route. Chaplains are there to support patients, not influence their decisions.

Other unhelpful amendments withdrawn

Several other potentially damaging amendments were also withdrawn. Meghan Gallacher MSP proposed an amendment requiring abortion facilities to create “signage” indicating where buffer zones start. As Gillian Mackay MSP pointed out, this would have risked encouraging protestors to gather at the closest possible spot.

Rachael Hamilton’s amendment would have reduced the size of buffer zones from 200m to 150m. Ms Hamilton described the proposed 200m radius as “a more extreme version of a buffer zone.” This goes against the view of the UK Supreme Court which considered a radius of up to 250m as proportionate. According to Gillian Mackay, research showed that a 150m radius would fall short in protecting women and staff from protests at around a third of sites.

Jeremy Balfour’s amendments 35 & 37 were designed to prevent new types of services such as pharmacies potentially acquiring protected status as abortion providers. However, medical science on abortion healthcare is always evolving, and other services may require protected status in future.

We are very pleased these amendments have been withdrawn.

Looking forwards

We are broadly pleased with the outcome of today’s committee. Now, Gillian Mackay MSP’s bill moves to Stage Three, and a final debate. Following that, it is very likely to become law. People seeking abortion services are closer than ever to harassment-free access to healthcare.

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