MSPs have declined to call for any changes which would throw out the criminalisation in new laws over religious acts including praying outside abortion clinics.

The Scottish Parliament’s health, social care and sport committee has agreed to the general principles of the controversial Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill which seeks to implement a default 200m safe access zones around all premises that provide abortion services in Scotland. These would prohibit various forms of anti-abortion protest taking place within that area.

A memo over the practicalities of the planned laws to create buffer zones around the clinics would result in a legal ban on "praying audibly, silent vigils and religious preaching".

The Scottish Government insists that it will not affect people's legal human rights over freedom of expression.

The bill takes a more hardline approach than that the UK Government where parallel guidance for England and Wales on safe access zones states that police should not target those they believe to have pro-life views, saying it may amount to "unlawful discrimination on the basis of religion".

The Bishops' Conference of Scotland (BCS), the forum in which the Roman Catholic Bishops in Scotland work together to undertake nationwide initiatives, had told Scots ministers that the criminalisation of prayer associated with the laws is "an affront to democratic values".

But it has been confirmed that the committee of an MSPs have remained split over the rights and wrongs of banning religious acts outside abortion clinics - and have not made any formal recommendation for changes.

It has emerged that the committee believe it is "unclear how the intent of those silently praying can be interpreted" and that it "could be difficult for the police to reach a clear decision whether the law has bee broken by people standing silently praying, in the absence of any other behaviour."

And they said: "There is a difference of views within the committee. Some [MSPs] consider that there should be an explicit exemption from the provisions in the bill for silent prayer, in order to avoid any criminalisation of private thoughts. However, others feel that such an exemption would fundamentally undermine the purpose of the bill, and that people silently praying can still be intimidating to those seeking to access abortion services."

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It added: The committee is of the view that a precautionary approach is needed when developing and implementing legislation that has implications for conflicting human rights, whereby any restrictions on human rights are kept to the minimum necessary to meet defined policy aims.

"The committee acknowledges the concerns raised by opponents of the bill about the threat to the perceived legitimacy and expression of their views on abortion in public spaces.

"The committee heard concerns about the potential impact of the Bill upon the human rights of those who engage in anti-abortion activity. Notwithstanding the committee's position in relation to silent prayer and while acknowledging that the Bill has a differential impact on competing human rights, the committee has concluded that its provisions are proportionate to achieving its stated aims."

A policy memorandum for the bill states that the Scottish Government "recognises" that the moves to provide safe access zones would impact on rights enshrined under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) but insist there are exceptions where it is "proportionate in the achievement of a legitimate aim".

In February, campaigners called for the "unacceptable" act of silent prayer outside abortion clinics to be banned under Scottish legislation as warnings were issued about how the UK Government had dealt with the issue.

Supporters of the Abortion Services Safe Access Zones (Scotland) Bill have insisted that the legislation must prohibit silent prayer.

The memo prepared by the Scottish Government on behalf of Scottish Green Party MSP Gillian Mackay who introduced the bill, states that the acts seen as part of religious worship would be considered as anti-abortion activity under the proposed law.

UK ministers were accused of watering down guidance around new buffer zones outside abortion clinics in England and Wales, after it emerged campaigners could still be allowed to conduct silent prayers and approach women attending clinics to discuss the issue.

Draft guidance published by the Home Office caused alarm among people who campaigned for what are 150-metre safe zones, due to be introduced in the spring.

Around 16,001 abortions take place in Scotland each year, the majority of which occur before nine weeks’ gestation.

They are regulated under the framework provided by the Abortion Act 1967.

The memo says that those who choose to terminate their pregnancies under that framework are accessing a healthcare service to which they are "legally entitled".

The BCS has raised concerns about the memo and has told ministers: "The right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association will be seriously impacted by the proposals, as it will criminalise people for expressing certain views and occupying certain spaces."

They said the "extraordinary step of criminalising prayer contrary to the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and will disproportionately affect people of faith".

"The extraordinary and unprecedented move to criminalise peaceful prayer in parts of Scotland is completely unjust and an affront to democratic values," the BCS said.

The Herald: A 'vigil' outside an Edinburgh abortion clinic

"Existing law is adequate to deal with any serious problems which arise at pro-life vigils, and it is significant that Police Scotland have not called for more powers."

The MSPs also questioned why the bill proposes a 200-metre safe access zone, instead of the 150m recommended by experts, with the exception of Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow which might need the radius extended due to its layout.

They went on to state that the bill’s implementation should be subject to ongoing post-legislative scrutiny to ensure the restrictions remain proportionate.

It will now proceed through the Scottish Parliament to be voted on at stage one.

Clare Haughey, committee convener, said: “Our committee is united in backing the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill.

“We recognise the strong views it has generated and that not all are in favour of its introduction.

“But ultimately we believe the creation of safe access zones around abortion services is necessary to enforce the principle that everyone should be able to access healthcare free from intimidation or harassment.

“We understand there are competing human rights at play, but we have concluded this Bill strikes an appropriate balance.

“We held extensive discussions on the issue of silent prayer and while some members felt this should be exempt from the provisions in this Bill, other members felt an exemption would fundamentally undermine its purpose and that silent prayer can be intimidating to those accessing services.

“This will need further consideration if the Bill proceeds to stage two.”

In the last five years, documented anti-abortion activity has occurred outside Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH), Aberdeen Maternity Hospital, Sandyford Clinic, Chalmers Clinic, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

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The memo points out that this activity has included "silent vigils, displays of images of foetuses, signs with language such as 'murderer', and displays of religious iconography".

During a parliamentary evidence session Alice Murray, a co-founder of campaign group Back Off Scotland, experienced having to walk past protesters engaging in silent prayer when she went to have an abortion in 2019 in Edinburgh.

She said while no one directly approached her, she felt “emotionally drained” by the experience and insisted legislation must prohibit silent prayer.