IT has been over seven years since Scotland saw its first anti-abortion protest outside of a hospital providing vital healthcare for women.

In January 2016, 40 Days for Life picketed the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH), in Glasgow, in the first demonstration of its kind outside of a Scottish clinic, but now the sight of pro-life campaigners holding prayer ‘“vigils” has become commonplace.

Our campaign Give Us Space is backing Scottish Greens MSP Gillian Mackay’s members' bill to bring in protections for women accessing health care.

You can find out about the campaign, the Abortion Services Safe Access Zones (Scotland) Bill, and more, below.

The National:

What are ‘buffer zones’?

Also known as safe access zones, they are areas around clinics and hospitals which provide abortion services where certain activities are banned. This can include harassment and intimidation, filming patients accessing these services, stopping patients in an attempt to change their mind about accessing services and gathering to protest about reproductive choice.

They already exist in a number of places around the world, such as Canada and Australia.

In Scotland, the current plan would implement 150-metre zones outside of health facilities so women can access these services without fear and intimidation.

Not all health boards provide abortion services, so the legislation would only implement these no-go areas around clinics and hospitals which provide terminations.

READ MORE: Give Us Space: The National's campaign backing buffer zones

Why have buffer zones around abortion clinics become an issue?

The largest anti-abortion gathering on record in the UK took place outside of the QEUH IN 2018, where around 200 people targeted the Maternity Wing.

While anti-abortion protesters targeted hospitals and clinics prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was a slate of vigils held in late 2020 which sparked anger amongst pro-choice campaigners who founded Back Off Scotland, a campaign group calling for buffer zones to be introduced.

Lucy Grieve and Alice Murray spearheaded that campaign as the protests continued to grow, gathering cross-party support from politicians in Holyrood and the public.

According to the campaign group, and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), since 2017 seven clinics and hospitals have experienced protests across Scotland.

At the end of Lent in 2023, after 40 days of protests and “vigils”, around 100 people gathered outside of the QEUH again, bringing the issue back into the public eye.

The National: Anti-abortion protesters outside of the QEUH in GlasgowAnti-abortion protesters outside of the QEUH in Glasgow (Image: John Devlin)

Who are the anti-abortion protesters?

Texas-based 40 Days for Life, and other internationally-led groups, are at the heart of anti-abortion activity in Scotland. The evangelical group offers training courses for those who decide to picket health clinics, and take action which is designed to “end abortion”.

They hold signs and posters with graphic images of a foetus, and host “prayer vigils” where they stand silently outside of the clinic. They have been accused of handing out graphic material to women trying to access health services and providing false or misleading information to stop women from accessing abortion care.

They have also repeatedly made claims that health professionals do not provide women with enough information before they have a termination, a claim heavily disputed by clinic staff.

READ MORE: Campaigners call for more urgency on abortion clinic buffer zones bill

Are buffer zones in place in other parts of the UK?

Almost. Last month, an amendment to the Public Order Bill, which passed with 299-116 in favour, will allow safe access zones to be introduced outside of clinics in England and Wales.

The bill will now proceed to Royal Assent and will become law. However, there is no set time period between the conclusion of the consideration of amendments and the final procedure to make the legislation law, so the exact date is currently up in the air.

And, in Northern Ireland, MLA Claire Bailey led the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill through the Assembly in 2022. It was voted through in March of that year by a majority of parties but was then delayed from becoming law after the attorney general intervened.

However, the Supreme Court ruled that the buffer zones do not “disproportionately interfere” with protesters’ rights and that the legislation balanced competing rights. The legislation was granted Royal Assent on February 6 2023.

The National: Mackay launched a consultation last year and has 12,000 responsesMackay launched a consultation last year and has 12,000 responses

What is causing the ‘delay’ for Scotland’s buffer zones?

Mackay launched the consultation for her bill on safe access zones in May 2022, closing it in August that year and gathering a whopping 12,000 responses. Each response has to be read, analysed, and stripped of identifying information before it can be uploaded online.

Speaking on a special bonus episode of The National’s Holyrood Weekly podcast, Mackay detailed why it was taking so long but said she understood the frustrations of campaigners who would want the legislation implemented as soon as possible.

Following the consultation analysis, which is in its final stages, the bill will then move through the usual parliamentary stages. However, the timeline can come down to the parliament’s agenda, how much time is allocated, and which committee is in charge of scrutinising the legislation.

READ MORE: Calls to fast track buffer zone bill in face of pro-life protests

Mackay was reluctant to give a firm date for when she hoped buffer zones would be introduced - but said she hoped Scotland would not see another 40 days of protests during Lent as it has this year.

Our campaign ‘Give Us Space’ will look in detail at the issues around safe access zones, with interviews with politicians, campaigners, medical professionals, and detailed explainers as we dig into the nitty-gritty of the topic.

You can listen to our special bonus podcast episode on Spotify and the Omny streaming platform from Wednesday.