AN anti-choice group significantly skewed the results of a consultation on legislation to implement buffer zones around abortion clinics, The National can reveal.

Green MSP Gillian Mackay will begin gathering formal support to allow her to introduce her Safe Access Zones Bill from tomorrow. The bill proposes 150m protest-free zones are placed around medical settings that offer terminations to protect women from intimidation and harassment.

The process follows a consultation on the bill which attracted more than 12,000 responses.

And Mackay has told The National an anti-choice campaign group applied certain tactics to try and tilt results in its favour.

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Mackay revealed how one group filed more than 3000 responses against the bill in the final fortnight of the consultation period which - due to not fulfilling criteria to be regarded as one response - had to all be considered separately.

With those responses factored in, just over 56% of people were supportive of the bill. Without those responses considered, almost 80% of people gave the bill their backing.

The tactic has already emerged in consultations for other members’ bills including Liam McArthur’s Assisted Dying For Terminally Ill Adults Bill.

Mackay said: “They all came in in the last couple of weeks and were all from the same IP address.

“We can’t tell for definite which group it is, but we do have our suspicions and it is definitely an anti-choice group.

“It has definitely skewed it but there is lots of really good testimony throughout the consultation document that we’ve picked out that we think really demonstrates the strong feeling that’s been shared by clinicians, campaign groups and organisations.”

Mackay has, however, stressed she is not concerned about the move threatening the bill and, for clarification, an appendix will be published in the consultation document to show the results with and without these responses.

The consultation document will be published tomorrow along with the final proposal – a short description of what the bill will do.

The National: Anti-choice demonstrators targeting Sandyford Clinic in Glasgow last yearAnti-choice demonstrators targeting Sandyford Clinic in Glasgow last year (Image: NQ)

Mackay added: “Consultation on members’ bills are not a popularity contest. They are to inform where we go with the bill. We know there’s a majority of support in the building and we know this is the right thing to do. I’m very clear the popularity contest is in the chamber.

“People sharing their experiences is hugely helpful though and I thank everyone who has done that and that adds the colour to why we are doing this.”

While most people were in favour of buffer zones being introduced, Mackay said responses did make it clear there is work to be done around the 150m proposed size of the zones.

People did highlight that this may not be large enough to protect patients and staff at certain sites and there may need to be flexibility and nuance around this.

Buffer zones campaigner Greg Irwin, who works as a radiologist at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, has previously said how the zone would ideally need to be take the perimeter of the campus as its starting point, rather than the door of the clinic.

Mackay suggested that there may need to be a mechanism where health boards or councils can apply to extend the zone, or include this intention in a notification to government.

Mackay said: “There’s some interesting things for us to think about around the standard size of the zones. There were a range of opinions in there as to whether there should be a standard size, whether there should be flexibility.

“I’m going to engage COSLA [Convention of Scottish Local Authorities] on this and the health boards because it’s where some of that decision-making would lie and where a request for an extension to a zone would come from.

“We need to make sure the bill is future-proofed, we don’t know what tactics are going to be developed by people to find a loophole or get around what we’re trying to do.

“Having that flexibility, how we do that and what the ceiling is on that – we can’t leave it open ended to being five miles for example – is important to consider and that’s where we are at.

“In Northern Ireland health boards have to notify the government that they are introducing a zone. There’ now decision to be made by government, it’s purely a notification procedure. That could be what we end up with.

“It’s how we make sure the individual councils are not subject to challenge any time they change this and that burden doesn’t fall on them.”

Mackay will be gathering signatures of support from MSPs in Parliament tomorrow and she will require 18 from at least two different parties in the parliamentary bureau. The LibDems – who are not in the bureau – will not count towards the two but their MSPs do count towards the 18.

She is beyond confident she will reach that requirement by lunchtime with MSPs from every corner of the chamber having already expressed their verbal support to her.

Mackay said once this stage is over – MSPs have 30 days to sign – the aim is to introduce the bill immediately after summer recess. Stage One of parliamentary scrutiny is likely to begin around October. 

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She added: “It’s lovely to be at this point because this is the big piece of work for me and my office finishing and it now moving into a space where it’s now a proposal within parliament.

“Hopefully we’ll get all the support we need in a very quick timeframe tomorrow.

“What I would say to people though is continue bringing this to the attention of politicians. Just because the consultation is done doesn’t mean we stop collecting evidence or your testimony is not important to us.

“We are fully behind everyone who is having to go for these appointments. There is a deep rooted misogyny behind these protests. We working as hard as humanly possible to bring this forward as quickly as possible.”