Cartoon showing a group of people shouting with signs reading "decriminalise abortion," "safe access," and "abortion is healthcare."

Buffer zones bill passes final vote and will become law

June 12, 2024

Today, MSPs voted by an overwhelming majority of 118 to 1 to introduce buffer zones laws that will protect abortion service users from religiously motivated harassment.

We are delighted that MSPs have voted in favour of Gillian Mackay MSP’s Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill. The bill will now receive royal assent and become law. Scotland will therefore become the last part of the UK to criminalise anti-abortion protests outside registered health facilities.

Our CEO Fraser Sutherland said:

Today is a huge victory for reproductive rights in Scotland. It will soon be illegal to intimidate, harass, and coerce people accessing or providing abortion healthcare in Scotland. We congratulate our allies at Back Off Scotland and Gillian Mackay MSP for their tireless work, and we thank the countless activists and supporters who have lent their voice and energy to this cause. But the fight is not over yet. We need to ensure robust regulations for enforcing buffer zones, avoiding a repeat of the heel-dragging we’ve seen in England and Wales. We then need to turn our attention to the larger issue of properly decriminalising abortion in Scotland.

Our Chair Jennifer Buchan said:

“Every day we are watching the erosion of reproductive rights all over the world: rights that we believe to be fundamental, such as a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body, and the right to make that choice without intimidation or harassment. In some countries, these rights are being reduced, and in some cases, they are being completely removed. That is why the buffer zones bill in Scotland is so important. The passing of this bill ensures that anyone seeking reproductive healthcare advice or treatment can do so knowing that they are protected by law from intimidation and harassment.”

What happened today and what comes next?

Today marked the Stage-Three Debate and vote on the buffer zones bill. This was the last stage of decision-making and discussion of the bill at Holyrood. Today’s vote confirmed that buffer zones will be written into Scottish law.

Once the bill has received royal assent, regulations on enforcing the law will be published. It will then become a crime to stage anti-abortion protests within 200 metres of a registered abortion service provider. More specifically, it will be illegal within that “buffer zone” to undertake any action intended to influence someone’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate an abortion. This includes displaying anti-abortion signs, staging so-called “prayer vigils,” and obstructing entry to premises. You can find out more about the law from our recent interview with Gillian.

We have won on buffer zones, but the fight is not over…Around the world, the forces of religious reaction are in the ascendency and reproductive rights are under threat.

It is imperative that that the Scottish Government now creates robust regulations for enforcing buffer zones law in Scotland. In England and Wales, a hostile government has delayed the implementation of buffer zones laws and has raised the possibility of opt-outs for “silent prayer” that would effectively render the law meaningless. It is imperative that the same problems do not dog the implementation of buffer zones in Scotland.

Wrecking amendments withdrawn

During today’s debate, a number of amendments were withdrawn that would have seriously hindered the scope of the bill. These included wrecking amendments proposed by Scottish Conservatives MSP Jeremy Balfour.

One of Mr Balfour’s amendments, Amendment Four, would have created a specific exception for individuals providing “pastoral support or chaplaincy services at protected premises.” To be clear, legitimate hospital chaplains and spiritual advisors will 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 were concerned that this amendment risked formalising anti-abortion activism within clinics.

Another of Mr Balfour’s amendments, Amendment Five, would have introduced a “defence of reasonableness” for people charged under the buffer zones bill. No other buffer zone legislation in the UK contains this defence. It would have created 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 have obliged 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 was no need or justification for including this defence in the bill.

The big picture: decriminalisation now

We are delighted at this victory for reproductive rights in Scotland. It is testament to the hard work of Gillian Mackay MSP, the grass-roots campaign group Back Off Scotland, and countless supporters and activists. But there is much more to be done to protect the rights of women and pregnant people. Around the world, the forces of religious reaction are in the ascendency and reproductive rights are under threat.

That’s why we’re backing our allies at Engender on the need to properly decriminalise abortion in Scotland. Abortion remains technically illegal around the UK, except in certain specific circumstances. This creates an often arcane and traumatising system for people seeking abortion care. (You can read more on abortion law in Scotland and the rest of the UK via our guest blog from law lecturer Dr. Lynsey Mitchell.)

We have won on buffer zones, but the fight is not over. Learn more about our work on reproductive rights and decriminalising abortion here.

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