SCOTLAND’S biggest cities are set to trial buffer zones around abortion clinics as part of Government efforts to stop protesters interfering with women’s healthcare. 

After convening an emergency summit on the issue, Nicola Sturgeon said she hoped Glasgow and Edinburgh would use byelaws to create the zones as a short-term measure.

She said the Scottish Government would stand behind any local authority that faced a legal challenge for creating zones to prevent “fear, harassment or intimidation”.

The First Minister also said said she was ready to “dig in” for a protracted legal battle to get nation-wide buffer zone law through Holyrood and onto the statute book.

Representatives from local government, the third sector, Police Scotland, the NHS and campaigners attended the meeting in Edinburgh, as well as MSPs of all parties.

It followed increasingly noisy and visible protests by anti-abortion campaigners outside the Sandyford Clinic in Glasgow and Chalmers Centre in Edinburgh.

Ms Sturgeon said she feared such protests would be given added impetus by the US Supreme Court ending the 50-year-old constitutional right to an abortion last week.

The Court’s decision to overrule the Roe v Wade case of 1973, and return abortion law to individual states,  led to a wave of immediate clinic closures and cancelled operations.

Until now, Scottish councils have been reluctant to use byelaws to create spaces around clinics for fear of legal cases. 

Council umbrella group Cosla also obtained legal advice noting the UK Supreme Court had ruled protesters have a right to be noisy and disruptive. 

The Scottish Government initially refused to legislate, but was prompted to act by new Green MSP Gillian Mackay proposing her own Bill to create 150m buffer zones around clinics free from demonstrators.

Ms Sturgeon now supports Holyrood legislation, but also interim steps by councils to contain protests and test the legality of zones. 

She said she had “no doubt” that legislation was the long-term answer, but there was also a willingness for central and local government to act together much sooner.

The First Minister said: “I think councils understandably will be nervous about a legal challenge to what they do and I’m keen that the government offers as much support in withstanding that as possible and to help deal with the implications of it.

“Glasgow and Edinburgh clearly are the councils where this is the biggest issue, although there are other health boards who are seeing these protests. 

“I don’t have the power to pick a council and say you will do this, but I’m certainly keen to have discussions with Cosla and with willing councils.

“Glasgow and Edinburgh I would hope would be round that table, to look at whether one or both of them might be prepared, with the right support and backing from the government, to use the byelaw powers that they have.

“Given the location of the most high-profile of these protests, Glasgow is an obvious place that you would want to see this.” 

She said the London borough of Ealing had taken three years to set up the UK’s first buffer zone around an abortion clinic in 2018, facing pro-life legal challenges as part of that.

She said the process in Scotland could be equally contentious and compared it to the Scottish Government’s five-year battle with the drinks industry over minimum unit pricing.

She said: “These things can take a while. Mimimum pricing is a good example here. 

“All of the bets were against us prevailing on minimum pricing at every stage and we did. “Sometimes you just have to be prepared to dig in and defend what it is you think is the right thing to do.”

The summitt coincided with a row over comments by John Mason, the SNP MSP for Glasgow Shettleston, endorsing the overturning of Roe v Wade.

A devout Christian who has defended pro-life “vigils” outside abortion clinics in Scotland, he said he felt “pretty positive” about the US Supreme Court’s decision. 

The Daily Record reported he said: “In the first place it is good for democracy as decisions on abortion will be made at state level rather than United States wide. 

“This brings the US into line with the UK with decisions on abortion are made at a Scotland or England level or not a UK level.”

He added: “However, I fully accept that the key issues here is abortion itself. I note points people are making about women’s rights. However others would argue that from the point of conception, there are two people with the rights both the woman and the baby. 

“So I very much see my role as speaking out for the weaker party, namely the baby.”

The First Minister said: “I’m very pro-choice. So I vehemently disagree with John Mason, but people are entitled to express those views.

“What I don't want to see is that view influencing government policy and and it doesn't.

“Because I don't think it is right for that strand of opinion to be imposed on women and to restrict women's right to control their own bodies, and certainly not to restrict the rights of women entirely within the law to access healthcare.

“Abortion services are health care and women should have the right to access those without fear, harassment or intimidation.”

Ms Sturgeon said the US Supreme Court decision was “catastrophic” for women in the United States and there was a danger of it stoking anti-abortion sentiment elsewhere.

She said: “There is a danger that will be the case in countries across the world. Often we see what starts in the United States spreads to other countries. 

“First and foremost, it is a catastrophic, horrific decision for women in the US.

“Hiistory tells us that you can't ban abortion, you can only ban safe abortion, and women's lives will be at risk because of that.

“I think generally across the world we are seeing a pushback against women's rights overall. “Often that's what happens when progress is made - there's a backlash against it. 

“And I think in particular, we're seeing that with a woman's right to choose.

“There have been protests outside hospitals and clinics in Scotland going back a long time. “But there is a sense that it has picked up in recent times and there is no doubt in my mind that what is happening in America will be having some impact on that. 

“Some of the campaigns in America [are] very well funded and seek to support similar campaigns in other countries often with funding.”

Labour MSP Monica Lennon, who attended the summit, said some it covered old ground, but the Government’s focus on the issue was nevertheless welcome.

She said there would be a follow-up summit later this year.

Humanist Society Scotland chair Professor Maggie Kinloch, who also attended, csaid: “Our research unequivocally shows public backing for restricting protests that deliberately target individual healthcare service users. 

“These protests are often orchestrated by ultra-conservative religious groups who believe a woman’s role in life is simply to be a mother."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: "For almost four years I have joined campaign groups in pressing the Scottish Government to stop dragging their feet and ensure that women feel safe while seeking abortion treatment.  

“The First Minister has now confirmed that her government will not stand in the way of Gillian Mackay’s member’s bill.  

“These proposals should be the base camp, not the summit of our ambition when it comes to protecting and expanding women’s reproductive rights.”