A CAMPAIGN group fighting for harassment-free access to abortion services have accused the Scottish Government of ‘backtracking’ over clinic buffer zones after they were told that ‘national legislation was not on the cards’.

The Back Off Scotland movement was formed to introduce 150 metre 'buffer zones' - or protest-free areas - around clinics that provide abortion services across Scotland.

Campaigners have so far successfully worked with Edinburgh City Council to secure a buffer zone commitment following reports of harassment outside Chalmers Sexual Health Clinic, however members have expressed frustration that the government is rejecting national plans to introduce legislation more widely.

On Tuesday September 14, campaigners met with the Scottish Government Women’s Health Minister, Maree Todd MSP, to discuss possible legislation to enact buffer zones around all clinics providing abortion services in Scotland.

However, during the meeting, Ms Todd stated that national legislation was not on the cards as the government feared the matter would be taken to court by pro-life groups and that they would lose.

Back Off co-founder and director Lucy Grieve expressed her frustration: “We’re grateful to the Minister for meeting with us to discuss our campaign to protect women’s right to access the healthcare they need.

“It was disappointing and frustrating, however, that the Scottish Government is refusing to use the powers they have to protect women across Scotland. By enacting buffer zones in one local authority area and not others, harassment-free access to healthcare turns into a postcode lottery.

“Protecting our human right to healthcare begins with protecting routes to access, and abortion is a legal right for all women who need one in Scotland, if we want to be world-leading, then we need to lead by example, and this is an opportunity to show what Scotland stands for.”

HeraldScotland: Lucy Grieve, Back Off co-founder and directorLucy Grieve, Back Off co-founder and director

Days after the campaigners met with Ms Todd, anti-abortion organisation 40 Days for Life began a 40-day, non-stop, round-the-clock prayer ‘vigil’ outside abortion facilities in Scotland on September 22. 

Alice Murray, who was confronted by pro-life protesters when she was accessing abortion services at Chalmers Street Clinic in Edinburgh said: “It’s promising to hear supporting comments from the Minister regarding the aims of our campaign. However, the commitment is lacking. 

“This is not a freedom of speech matter, but a breach of our right to access to healthcare and therefore should be a top priority for the Minister. 

“To me, it feels as though the government is taking a reactive rather than proactive approach to this matter. It shouldn’t have to take multiple cases of harassment for buffer zones to be introduced, buffer zones should be a preventative measure.”

Lily Roberts, who faced a large number of protesters holding a vigil when she was accessing an abortion at Glasgow Queen Elizabeth University Hospital added: “I cannot stress enough that this is a matter of healthcare access. Whilst commitments to telemedicine were reiterated by the minister, our demand for national legislation was deemed too bold as it would ‘frighten the horses’. 

“There is a deeply concerning issue of the Scottish Government hinging discussion about buffer zones on a ‘moral debate’ about abortion. Evidence collected by BPAS and the Humanist Society Scotland clearly shows that patchwork policy for buffer zones does not work and the government’s assertion that this is the ‘safest’ way forward to enact protections is deeply concerning as it completely neglects this evidence and forms a weak response to our case for national buffer zones. 

“Policy needs to be bold and focused on the issue at hand – this is not about a moral debate and there should be no fear from the government about upsetting the right to peacefully protest as these protests are inherently violent and inappropriate in a healthcare setting.”

Last month, Scotland became the first country in the UK to introduce a Women’s Health Plan which stated that the Scottish Government would work alongside the NHS, local authorities and justice agencies to “find ways of preventing women feeling harassed when accessing abortion care due to protests or vigils”.

Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said that the decision to reject national legislation was ‘disappointing news’ and claimed that the Scottish Government was ‘dragging their feet’ on the matter which will ultimately lead to a ‘postcode lottery’ for women accessing abortion services.

Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “This is disappointing news to hear. For years my party and I have backed campaigners calling to set up these buffer zones. Every patient should be able to receive the medical treatment they need without fear of harassment or intimidation. 

"Councils in England have used these zones to protect both clinical staff and those attending appointments but local authorities in Scotland do not have the power to introduce buffer zones unless they apply to the Scottish Government. 

"I've been asking Scottish ministers about this for three years. The decision by the Scottish Government to drag their feet rather than put forward a national policy to allow buffer zones sets up a postcode lottery and lets women in need down. 

"If the Government won’t pursue a national policy, they should give local authorities the ability to respond to local circumstances in setting up these buffer zones without having to ask SNP ministers for permission." 

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Women in Scotland should have access to abortion services without feeling harassed or intimidated.

“Our Programme for Government already includes a commitment to support any local authority who wishes to use bye-laws to establish buffer zones – and we would invite them to do so as the swiftest way to have such zones enacted.”