THE “unacceptable” act of silent prayer outside abortion clinics must be banned under Scottish legislation, campaigners have told MSPs, as warnings were issued about how the UK Government had dealt with the issue.

MSPs on Holyrood’s health committee heard from supporters of the Abortion Services Safe Access Zones (Scotland) Bill on Tuesday as the first stage of scrutiny got underway.

The bill is seeking to implement default 200m safe access zones around all premises that provide abortion services in Scotland. These would prohibit various forms of anti-abortion protest taking place within that area.

During the session, Tory MP Sandesh Gulhane repeatedly asked about how silent prayer had been handled in other legislation across the world and what impact it had had on those accessing clinics compared with more vocal acts, arguing it was sometimes “impossible to know” if people were doing it.

Alice Murray, a co-founder of campaign group Back Off Scotland, experienced having to walk past protesters engaging in silent prayer when she went to have an abortion in 2019 in Edinburgh.

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She said while no one directly approached her, she felt “emotionally drained” by the experience and insisted legislation must prohibit silent prayer.

She told the committee: “Sometimes it’s silent, but sometimes they sing hymns and they also have signs.

“I know it was all the same [no matter what style of protest it was], and it was all the more traumatising to walk into a clinic and have people outside question your decision. It’s horrible and emotionally draining.

“We need to encompass a variety of actions. What one person’s idea of silent prayer is can look very different to the person on the other side who is accessing healthcare.”

Lucy Grieve, also of Back Off Scotland, argued the targeting of women accessing healthcare is “unacceptable” whether it is silent or not.

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She added: “When you bring it down to the base level and look at things like silent prayer, it doesn’t matter if it’s silent or in your face, the presence of someone targeting you is unacceptable and the impact [the legislation] would have on the whole of society would be extremely beneficial.

“It balances the rights well because no one on either side of the coin can behave like this in a dedicated zone.”

Emily Ottley, a lecturer in law from the University of Winchester, also laid out to Gulhane how silent prayer had become a “big issue” in England and Wales since safe access zone legislation was passed as part of the Public Order Act last year.

She explained how UK ministers have been accused of watering down guidance around buffer zones after it emerged campaigners could still be allowed to conduct silent prayers in them.

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Despite how an amendment proposing to exclude silent prayer from the legislation was voted down as it made its way through Parliament, it still seems to have since been excluded from draft guidance published by the Home Office, with buffer zones due to be implemented fully in the spring.

The guidance states: “Prayer within a safe access zone should not automatically be seen as unlawful. Prayer has long received legal protection in the United Kingdom and these protections have not changed.”

Ottley added that research had shown it was often more about the presence of people engaging in silent prayer outside a clinic that was cited as the problem, rather than the act itself.

She said to Gulhane: “Silent prayer has been a big issue in England and Wales. The Government has been accused of watering down the protection from the legislation.

“When you read through some of the [research in] parliamentary reports, they talk about how the fact you’re doing it very close to a clinic can be the problem as opposed to doing it somewhere else.”

During the session, Rachael Clarke, from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), insisted posters displaying anti-abortion messages in private homes should be prohibited within a safe access zone as is the case in England and Wales.

She said: “If you’re having a private conversation in your own home, none of us believe that should be stopped. Our concern was around very large posters and people stood in gardens handing leaflets out.

"For us, where we landed in England, is it doesn’t cover private conversations but it does cover anything aimed at women who are in the public space.”

MSPs additionally heard that while anti-abortion protesters will claim they are trying to offer advice and support to women going for an abortion, they have been seen to hand out leaflets with misinformation on, chase staff providing services down the street, and intimidate staff to the point where they return home crying.

Grieve concluded: “It’s all to do with them [protesters] wanting to ban abortion outright. These people are not quiet and kind, they are backed by some very dangerous people that are really trying to cumber reproductive rights.”