Plans to tackle anti-abortion protests outside health facilities in Scotland have been put forward at Holyrood.

The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill offers the “best protections” in the UK, the MSP proposing it has said.

Protesters could face unlimited fines if they breach a 200-metre limit around medical centres to “safeguard public health”, and health boards can apply to have the size of the buffer zone extended.

Gillian Mackay’s Bill follows a campaign for buffer zones in Scotland which began in 2020.

Anti-abortion groups have staged demonstrations outside clinics in recent years, sparking public outcry.

'These protests should not be happening'

The Herald: Gillian Mackay has proposed a bill for anti-abortion protest buffer zones in ScotlandGillian Mackay has proposed a bill for anti-abortion protest buffer zones in Scotland (Image: PA)

The Scottish Greens MSP said: “There is no excuse for the harassment that far too many people have had to endure when accessing healthcare.

"These protests should not be happening and today we are an important step closer to ending them for good."

Ms Mackay said the Bill builds on experiences of buffer zones in other countries, particularly in Northern Ireland. 

She said: “These protests have gone on for far too long. I am determined to ensure the appalling and distressing scenes we have witnessed outside hospitals and abortion clinics are stopped."

Read more: Christian protest outside Glasgow hospital 'borders on criminality'

The MSP said there were more than 12,000 submissions to a consultation on the plans, showing the "strength of feeling" on the issue. 

She said: “I am grateful to everyone who has shared their experiences and trusted me with their stories.

"I will do everything to ensure we do you justice and that nobody else has to endure what you have.”

What does the Abortion services (safe access zones) bill Scotland propose?

The Bill has received cross-party support from more than 70 MSPs, including First Minister Humza Yousaf.

It will criminalise attempts to restrict access, for example by chaining doors closed, to clinics providing abortion services and “influencing a decision". But it will not infringe on the right to freedom of expression.

In 2021, the 40 Days for Life protest group stood outside numerous hospitals and clinics, and it was joined by SNP MSP John Mason at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.

The party disciplined Mr Mason for his conduct.

The Scottish Government said women should not experience “distress or alarm” at abortion clinics and welcomed the publication of the Bill.

'An important milestone'

The Herald: Women's health minister Jenni Minto has welcomed the Bill Women's health minister Jenni Minto has welcomed the Bill

Women’s health minister Jenni Minto said: “This is an important milestone towards national legislation to protect women from unwanted influence, distress or alarm when accessing abortion services.

“The decision to access abortion services is an individual and personal choice which should not be subject to public demonstration or influence outside premises providing abortion services.

“It is unacceptable for women to face any fear of intimidation, harassment or unwanted influence when accessing essential healthcare services."

The Bill will now be scrutinised and debated by MSPs.

What has Back Off Scotland said?

A statement from Back Off Scotland, which has campaigned for buffer zones, said: “Since we started our campaign in 2020, we have collected thousands of stories about women who have been harassed at the gates of medical facilities.

“The launch of this crucial legislation has come not a moment too soon, and we look forward to working closely with Gillian Mackay MSP to ensure the Bill can pass through Parliament at pace.”

What have anti-abortion groups said?

Meanwhile, Christian group Logos Scotland raised concerns about the Bill's impact on freedom of speech. 

Chief executive Shona Haslam said: "Of course, it is never acceptable to intimidate or harass women who are going through an incredibly difficult time, but neither is it right to criminalise those who are simply praying or offering charitable support services outside of these clinics.

"We have seen cases in other areas where individuals who are silently praying on pavements have  been arrested by the police for what could be considered a 'thoughtcrime'."