SCOTLAND’S Women’s Health Minister has said she is “alert” to the threat of Westminster interference if there are moves to decriminalise abortion north of the border.

SNP MSP Jenni Minto told The National that while she hadn’t heard anything “specific” from the UK Government, repeated attempts to undermine devolution have made ministers wary, particularly with such “emotive” policy areas.

It comes as pro-choice campaigners warn that it will be “challenging” to bring in decriminalisation in Scotland, as there will likely be a lot of resistance from some quarters.

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Last week, a mum-of-three was jailed for 18 months in England after illegally procuring her own abortion during the Covid-19 national lockdown, under archaic legislation from 1861.

The 44-year-old admitted to gaining access to at-home abortion pills, which are only legal before 10 weeks. However, the woman involved was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has already said in the wake of outrage at the case that he has no plans to alter abortion laws in Westminster. The Abortion Act was brought on this day in 1967, and despite repeated attempts to reform it over past decades, still puts a number of limitations on abortion access.

During the SNP leadership contest, Humza Yousaf (pictured below) promised action to improve abortion care in Scotland, as some women have to travel to England for terminations in their later pregnancies.

The National: Humza Yousaf in the Scottish Parliament

The now-First Minister also said he would consider decriminalising the procedure in this current parliamentary term.

Abortion has been devolved to Holyrood since 2016.

Minto, appointed to the women’s health brief in March 2023 and replacing Maree Todd, said that the case in England was “absolutely tragic”.

“The First Minister has been clear that he wants us to look at the legal side around abortion but really focus on the fact that it's about women's health, as opposed to the law and abortion,” she told The National.

“I think that's a really key way of looking at it, and I think if you're coming at it from that perspective, then I think that's the right direction.”

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Minto added that it was “correct” that it would fall to the Crown Office to make any decisions regarding breaches of abortion law.

“When we start looking at bringing in any change to the law, then we have to make sure we're doing the full amount of consultation with stakeholders from all corners,” she added.

To decriminalise abortion in Scotland, ministers would have to move primary legislation, which Minto says gives an advantage as it allows a full consultation to be undertaken. Secondary legislation, she added, would not go through the same level of “scrutiny”.

Asked if she believes abortion law could become another fault line between the Scottish and UK Government’s, Minto said: “I think that's a really pertinent question and it's one that we certainly need to be very, very aware of.

The National: People protest outside an abortion clinic

“I used to sit on the constitution committee, and we've done a lot of work taking evidence on the impact of a UK Internal Market Act, retained EU law, and I think it’s something we haven't heard anything specific about from the UK Government.

“But it's certainly something that I am very alert to, and we will speak if we feel it's necessary to, because when it is something that is so pertinent to women's health, then we need to make sure we get it right.”

Dr Audrey Brown, who previously worked in abortion care for over 30 years, said that the case in England was “extremely rare”.

Dr Brown was instrumental in setting up telemedicine for at-home abortions in Scotland, and insists that the scheme is not simply “pills by post”, and that a detailed consultation is carried out before any medication is provided.

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“I think the benefits very much outweigh any small risks, although when cases like this happen, of course it's upsetting, and everybody feels very empathic towards the situation,” she said.

Brown has been campaigning for abortion to be decriminalised in Scotland for decades, but warned that it will be “challenging” due to the amount of pushback expected.

She said: “Whenever you do anything with abortion care, there is always a kickback because there's a part of Scottish society that doesn't agree with abortion, and particularly doesn't agree with it in any circumstances.

“I suppose saying that we should decriminalise [abortion], well they don’t agree with it being criminalised.

“There would be a kickback and there would likely be a challenge, but we know that would be the case, itt doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, if it’s the right thing to do for people’s bodily autonomy.”

Lucy Grieve, co-founder of Back Off Scotland, who has been campaigning for no-protest zones to be brought in outside of abortion clinics, said that she thinks it will be a “much more heated discussion” over decriminalisation.

She told the Holyrood Weekly podcast: “I think this one's a little bit more complex, but I actually think we're gonna get to a place where if we're not there now, we will be very soon, where people are actually like this is the woman's body and a woman's life and it's a woman's autonomy that's at stake here.”