A SOLID week in and it might have been expected that the SNP leadership race would move on to robust issues of policy and routes to independence, and away from relentless quizzing about the candidates' religious beliefs.

While the debate has thankfully shifted, questioning of the two frontrunner candidates, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes, is still being flavoured by reference to their faith. In particular, Yousaf has faced protracted questioning on his skipping of the Scottish Parliament's equal marriage vote in 2014.

Equal marriage is a topic that matters a great deal to a great many. People rightly need to feel their elected representatives see them as equal players in all aspects of the private and political spheres. And, more simply, equal as human beings. Trust me, women get that – whether LGBT or not.

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Marriage, as well as being a highly practical matter, is also one of these issues to which folk have an emotional, rather than a pragmatic, connection.

And the issue is being used as a bellwether: if Forbes, who has said she would have voted against equal marriage, doesn't believe in these rights for LGBT people, what other rights might she block in future?

It makes sense then that journalists have honed in on the topic – it's important, it's universal and it captures reader engagement. It's also likely a focus due to there being a heavily skewed number of male political journalists, so what is seen as a female issue – and one people are squeamish about – has not faced the close scrutiny of equal marriage.

Both candidates have been asked about the proposed introduction in Scotland of buffer zones around abortion clinics but while this is a current issue, questions focused on that are far from a comprehensive or satisfactory exploration of the entire issue.

This is a serious miss because, as a testing of the temperature on religious beliefs and policy setting, abortion is the more useful subject. Equal marriage is a settled issue. Abortion is not.

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Medical advances and developments mean that access to abortion changes over time. This was, for example, demonstrated during the pandemic when access to telemedical abortion became a live topic.

The method was introduced from October 2017 and its use has increased year on year with more than half of abortions in Scotland now taking place at home.

To allow access to abortion to continue during the pandemic, women were allowed for the first time to take both pills required for an early medical abortion at home. Prior to this it was only possible to take the second drug at home but, to allow access to healthcare during the lockdown, the policy changed.

When the lockdown lifted the Scottish Government decided to keep this measure in place.


Anti-abortion activism persists across the UK. Pressure is not only at a political level but also forced on individual women. A Panorama documentary this week uncovered how women are being manipulated and given false information about abortion at some crisis pregnancy centres in the UK.

As well as protesters outside hospitals and health clinics, city centres are increasingly seeing anti-abortion campaigners on high streets, handing out leaflets and showing grotesque, inflammatory posters to passers-by.

And so, to know how able are your candidates at separating church and state, abortion is the more important issue. And yet, it's been somewhat of a relief that abortion hasn't commanded more time in the debate or press coverage given the importance of having unhurried, non-reactionary discussion of the topic.

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Now, though, Yousaf, has made abortion rights a more pressing issue. At the first leaderships hustings the MSP gave a perhaps surprising answer to a question about the harassment of people outside abortion healthcare centres. The question focused on whether each of the three candidates would support tabled legislation on buffer zones.

Ash Regan said unequivocally that she would back Gillian Mackay MSP's member's bill, which is currently out for consultation. Kate Forbes said women should be able to access abortion care "without fear, intimidation or harassment", adding, "I'm very clear that I'm willing to work with Gillian Mackay to make sure that bill works."

The health secretary also said he supports safe access zones – "no ifs, no buts, no maybes about it" – but went one step further. "It actually still stuns me," he added, "That [abortion is] part of the criminal law at the moment and there's been an ask about whether we should look to decriminalise it and that's a conversation that not only we should explore but we should explore with some level of urgency." Should we?

According to the campaign group Back Off Scotland, Yousaf has pledged he will seek to bring forward abortion decriminalisation proposals by the end of this parliament.

I imagine for some people it will come as a surprise that abortion is still a criminal matter. In Scotland, abortion without medical sanction is a crime at common law. The legislation does not confer upon women the "right" to an abortion but rather gives privileges to qualified medical practitioners who carry out certain procedures.


Various pieces of legislation cover England, Wales and Scotland and in Scotland the law is not simple. It can be read as saying that a woman or girl seeking abortion is not committing a crime but that providing an unsafe abortion is a crime. That reading is not unreasonable and serves to safeguard women.

The point being that the issue of decriminalising abortion is complex and sensitive and requires rigorous, close scrutiny with gentle handling. It needs an unhurried conversation, close consideration of where the current law does not work and a nuanced look at what safeguards are necessary.

This is not a conversation to be had against the backdrop and constraints of a political race. How genuinely does Yousaf believe in the expansion of abortion rights and how much of this is point scoring against his opponent? There are many questions to be considered in looking at abortion provision and the law; those should not be two of them.

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This may also be a real misstep in the campaign by Yousaf. There is a squeamishness about abortion. While voters, in the main, believe that women should have access to abortion as healthcare, they prefer to think of it as a decision taken under difficult or extreme circumstances rather than a right under any circumstance.

Yousaf may find he does not secure the support he is expecting by taking on this issue, even if his position is well meaning. In this leadership campaign he is going head to head with Forbes and trying to set himself out as the progressive candidate of faith who holds true to religious principles but can simultaneously take a secular view of policy setting.

Abortion access rights will certainly illustrate that principle but it's a careless tactic to try to handle the tactic at pace. These leadership hopefuls may find that slow and, more importantly, steady wins this race.