THE Scottish Government has refused to back a plan to create ‘buffer zones’ around all of Scotland’s abortion clinics in order to protect women from bullying and harassment.

Campaigners called it an “absolutely disgraceful abdication of responsibility”.

But SNP public heath minister Maree Todd said the rights of protestors who gathered outside clinics also had to be considered, even though it led to some women feeling intimidated.

She said the Government would rather councils passed by-laws to protect specific sites, rather than have a nationwide system, but then admitted they were “unlikely” to do it.

It followed Scottish Green MSP Gillian Mackay holding a member’s business debate at Holyrood on buffer zones, and announcing she planned her own Bill on the issue.

The Central Scotland MSP said she wanted 150m protest-free areas around all clinics that provided abortion services across Scotland, not a “postcode lottery” based on bylaws.

She said she would consult on a member’s Bill to bring the zones into effect, and received support from MSPs of every other party in the chamber.

She said she respected the right of people to protest, but said doing it outside clinics led to the harassment and intimidation of people trying to access health care.

She read out the story of a 17-year-old sexual assault victim who went to a clinic in Edinbvurgh earlier this year only to be confronted by protestoers, one of whom called her a “teenage murderer”, leaving her feeling threatened at a time she needed comfort.

She said Scotland was behind countries such as Canada and Australia on buffer zones.

She said: “I believe that everyone should be able to access healthcare unimpeded, and that no one should face harassment or intimidation while doing so.

“Scottish local authorities have stated that they do not have the ability to introduce buffer zones under the current law, and progress appears to have halted. 

“I do believe there is a risk that leaving it to local authorities to implement buffer zones could result in a postcode lottery, whereby some women are able to access abortion services without fear of harassment, but others are not. I believe that a national approach is required.

“I am therefore very pleased to announce my intention to lodge a Member’s Bill on buffer zones around abortion clinics. 

“I will be honoured to take forward such important legislation and I intend to consult with a wide range of individuals and groups to hear their thoughts on the Bill’s proposals.”

She was backed by SNP, Labour, and Tory MSPs, as well as Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton, who said the people targeted by pro-lifers did not report feeling “supported and helped…. instead, they report feeling embarrassed and shunned”.

But Ms Todd went against the mood in the chamber, and refused to legislate on the issue. 

She said the response had to be “proportionate”, with the rights of people using clinics set against those holding “vigils or protests”, even though these could be “distressing” to some.

She said: “Buffer zones can be justified in certain circumstances, but the Scottish Government does not believe that imposing buffer zones around all abortion clinics would be appropriate. The Scottish Government does not feel a national ban is an option.”

Asked by Glasgow Labour MSP Pam Duncan-Glancy when it would be inappropriate to have a buffer zone, Ms Todd struggled to answer, then said the precedent from England and other countries was for zones at local or state level, rather than nationwide. 

SNP MSP Emma Roddick reminded Ms Todd 70% of women in Scotland live in a health board area with recent protests at abortion clinics, later condemned the decision.

She said: “The SNP are a progressive social democratic party. I do not understand what social democracy means if it does not include reproductive rights. 

“No one should face harassment in accessing those rights. We must introduce buffer zones around clinics to prevent such harassment.”

Ms Todd said that as councils were “unlikely” to take forward proposals at present, she would try to explore other options with the council umbrella group Cosla, perhaps measures aimed at various protests outside health care facilities, potentially including vaccination

“I don’t pretend this will be easy, but we will continue to seek to find a way forward.”

She said would look at Ms Mackay's Bill when it arrived. 

The Back Off Scotland campaign, which has led the fight for buffer zones, tweeted after the debate: “Absolutely disgraceful abdication of responsibility from Women’s Health Minister @MareeToddMSP today in the Scottish Parliament.”