A row of anti-abortion protestors holding placards infront of some railings.

Wrecking amendments reintroduced ahead of final vote on buffer zones

June 5, 2024

Ahead of the final vote on the buffer zones bill next week, wrecking amendments have been reintroduced by Jeremy Balfour MSP. We urge MSPs to vote against them.

On June 12 2024, MSPs will take part in the final vote on Gillian Mackay MSP’s Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill. If passed into law, the bill will ensure women and pregnant people can access abortion services without being harassed by religious protestors. But amongst the amendments tabled for discussion are several wrecking amendments reintroduced by Jeremy Balfour MSP.

We are particularly concerned by Amendments Four and Five. Mr. Balfour withdrew both amendments during Stage Two debate. But he did so on the understanding that Gillian Mackay and the Scottish Government would discuss the topic of Amendment Five (pastoral care) with him. Here’s a little more information about each amendment and why we’re worried about it.

Amendment 4

This amendment would create a specific exception for individuals providing “pastoral support or chaplaincy services at protected premises.” To be clear, legitimate hospital chaplains and spiritual advisors would not be impacted by this bill. Their role is to listen to and support patients, not to provide advice or seek to influence decisions. 

We are concerned that this amendment could provide a route to formalise anti-abortion activism within clinics under the guise of “pastoral care.” If this amendment is passed, we would seek clear assurance that anti-abortion activists will not be given a platform to continue their campaign of misinformation and manipulative tactics inside abortion clinics.

Amendment 5

This amendment would introduce a “defence of reasonableness” for people charged under the bill. No other buffer zone legislation in the UK contains this defence. It would create a built-in loophole for defendants to argue that behaviour intended to impede, harass, or influence staff and patients entering clinics was “reasonable” because of the strength of their religious belief.

The amendment would also ask courts to consider whether an individual was exercising their human right to freedom of expression. The UK Supreme Court has already ruled that safe access zones are a proportional and legitimate restriction on freedom of expression. There is no need to include this defence in the bill. Indeed, the Supreme Court judgement held that including a reasonable excuse defence would limit the protection afforded to patients and staff.

Jeremy Balfour and anti-abortion lobbying

While discussing similar amendments he had proposed at Stage Two, Jeremy Balfour stated that he was simply a concerned Christian. He assured the health committee he had little truck with the tactics used by protestors outside clinics, and was not attempting to create loopholes within the bill for anti-abortion protestors to exploit.

However, a review of the Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register reveals that Mr Balfour has met with the most vocal opponents of the Safe Access Zones Bill no less than ten times since Gillian MacKay’s bill was published. He met with CARE for Scotland six times during this period, on 18 May and 29 July 2022, on 1 March and 3 July 2023, and on 28 February and 28 March 2024. Mr Balfour also met with the Evangelical Alliance for Scotland on 4 May 2023 and 23 May 2024, with the Christian Institute on 8 March 2023, and with the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland on 5 April 2023. The Bishops’ Conference includes Bishop John Keenan, who described anti-abortion leaflets full of misinformation as “factually accurate” during a Health Committee evidence session on the bill. 

These connections call into serious question Mr. Balfour’s argument that his amendments are not intended to wreck the buffer zones bill. We strongly oppose both these amendments. We hope MSPs will make the right decision for abortion clinic users on 12 June. It is time to bring into law this carefully considered, humane, and proportionate legislation, and ensure safe access to abortion healthcare across Scotland.

Fraser Sutherland, CEO of Humanist Society Scotland, said:

“There is no justification for either of Jeremy Balfour’s amendments, which pose non-existent problems within the scope of the bill in order to create wriggle room for continued anti-abortion harassment. The bill as originally drafted is deeply considered, proportionate, and reasonable. It will ensure safe access to abortion healthcare users across Scotland, and we hope MSPs will see through attempts to water it down.”

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