Nicola Sturgeon has said she “strongly” supports calls for buffer zones to be set up to prevent protests outside abortion clinics, with the Scottish Government now “actively considering” how Holyrood can legislate on the issue.
The First Minister also pledged to personally convene an emergency summit on the issue, as she told how demonstrations by anti-abortion protesters can cause “fear, anxiety and intimidation” to women attending clinics.
Ms Sturgeon stressed: “Everybody, everybody without exception, should have the right to access healthcare without fear and intimidation.
“I am very happy to convene and indeed I will personally chair a roundtable summit to discuss buffer zones, and indeed any other matters that need to be addressed to ensure safe and timely access to abortion services in Scotland, within the current law.”
She addressed the issue at First Minster’s Questions at Holyrood after Labour’s Monica Lennon called for an emergency summit in response to the protests.
The First Minister repeated her call for those opposed to abortion to protest outside the Scottish Parliament, not at clinics.
She told them: “Protesting outside hospitals or sexual health clinics target women, not lawmakers, and it causes stress and anxiety to those accessing healthcare.
“That in my view is deeply wrong.
“I strongly support the introduction of buffer zones and the Government is actively considering how this Parliament can legislate.”
As she noted that legislation to create buffer zones around clinics in Northern Ireland is being considered by the Supreme Court, she stressed any legislation must be “effective and also capable of withstanding legal challenge”.
While the issue is being considered at Holyrood – with Green MSP Gillian Mackay having indicated plans to bring a Member’s Bill on buffer zones – Ms Sturgeon added the Government would support local councils using bylaws to prevent protests outside clinics.
The row over buffer zones in Scotland comes at a time when concerns are mounting among women’s rights campaigners that the Roe v Wade US Supreme Court ruling which made abortion legal in America could be overturned.
Ms Sturgeon said attacks on abortion rights are an “attack on the rights of women to control our own bodies”, as she branded the situation in America “deeply concerning”.
She said: “I believe in a woman’s right to choose and I believe those of us who hold that view have a duty to show solidarity with those in other parts of the world where it is coming under significant attack.”
The First Minister went on to tell SNP MSP John Mason – who has taken part in what he described as “vigils” outside hospitals carrying out abortions – that the emergency summit will not consider reducing the legal limit for terminating a pregnancy.
Calling for the current 24-week limit to be reviewed, Mr Mason said many babies born at 23 weeks gestation “are surviving”.
Ms Sturgeon told him that issue will “not be on the agenda of the summit I have agreed to convene today”.
She added: “I do not support a reduction in the current time limit for abortion.
“On the contrary I think the challenge in Scotland is to ensure that women who need to – and that is something no woman does lightly – can access that right in a safe and timely manner.”
Her comments came after Health Secretary Humza Yousaf also called on anti-abortion campaigners to stop “intimidating and harassing” women accessing health services and protest at Holyrood instead.
He told the PA news agency: “I think some of those protests that we’ve seen are a disgrace, and I don’t use that word lightly.”
Mr Yousaf also said comments in defence of the demonstrations from Mr Mason were “plain wrong”.
SNP backbencher Mr Mason had come under fire at the weekend for saying clinics “push abortion without laying out the pros and cons”.
Mr Yousaf said the MSP’s comments were “misjudged” and “ill-informed”.
He added: “I would suggest to John Mason that he goes in and meets clinicians. Meet those that are involved in providing services.”
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