A BISHOP has compared prayer vigils outside abortion clinics to anti-nuclear peace camps at Faslane.

Bishop John Keenan was giving evidence to Holyrood’s Health Committee, which is scrutinising the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill.

This bill would make it illegal for anyone to harass, intimidate or be seen to influence a woman going for a termination within 200m of an abortion clinic.

While arguing that place is important for people who want to pray for women going for an abortion, Keenan appeared to suggest that prayer vigils were similar to demonstrations held at HMNB Clyde where the UK’s weapons of mass destruction are held.

He also made comparisons to protests arguing for the rights of asylum seekers happening outside Dungavel detention centre in South Lanarkshire.

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He told the committee: “We could take places where location has been important like Faslane. For years there was a peace camp there just outside the nuclear facility. It was important for them they were at Faslane.

“Similarly with Dungavel detention centre, my predecessor often went along to the protests outside Dungavel, because presence is important.

“When they were there it concentrated minds about what was happening inside in terms of giving rights and dignity to asylum seekers.

“I think this question about being there in terms of pro-life vigils has implications for Faslane and Dungavel. The same reasoning that could apply to these pro life vigils can very easily, just change the context slightly, can apply against those who are for peace.”

There were multiple references to Faslane throughout the session and witnesses were told by MSPs to desist from referring to protests in different contexts.

There were also comparisons made between the protests outside hospitals and prayer services at memorial sites for road accidents and even 9/11.

Gillian Mackay, the MSP spearheading the bill, has since branded Keenan's comments "totally inappropriate".

She said: "These protests are being held to intimidate people out of accessing healthcare. They cannot be compared to a peace camp or a memorial, and to do so is totally inappropriate.

“There can be no doubting the awful toll that these protests have on medical staff and patients. There is no justification for this kind of harassment and there never can be."

Keenan went onto argue that a “legitimate point of view” shouldn’t be made “invisible” by the bill.

Earlier in the session, Keenan became embroiled in a debate with Green MSP Ross Greer about what the Bible says about proximity of prayer. 

While Keenan argued place was important for prayer, Greer pointed out the Bible was critical of people who "prayed performatively".

Keenan added he felt there should be an exemption made for silent prayer in the legislation.

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He told the committee: "If you’re criminalising silent prayer, you’re criminalising people’s thoughts."

Keenan spoke in defence of the notorious 40 Days for Life group who hold anti-abortion demonstrations outside the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, claiming members of the organisation "make efforts" not to use images of dismembered foetuses on placards.

He said: "If there was a an image [used by them] it would be a living foetus in the womb. You should have positive life images."

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Questions were then asked about whether the information on some leaflets being handed out at abortion clinics was accurate, with Keenan at one stage handing out some examples he claimed were not handed out in Scotland but "tend to be facturally accurate".

He subsequently faced an awkward exchange with Tory MSP Dr Sandesh Gulhane, a practicing GP, who said the leaflets were full of "concerning misinformation" including claims one in 17 women end up in hospital after having an abortion.

Fraser Sutherland, CEO of the Humanist Society Scotland, said Keenan's "medical ignorance" had only served to show why protecting people accessing abortion is so important.

He told The National: "Bishop John Keenan has unwittingly played into the hands of the pro-choice campaign with his testimony.

"By handing round leaflets he barely seemed to recognise, but which he was happy to endorse as 'factually accurate,' he allowed the only medic on the panel to totally dismantle the credibility of the information presented in them.

"As usual, this included lies and scaremongering about the health risks of abortion care.

"The level of medical ignorance displayed by the Bishop and his reading material highlights more than ever the need for cross-party support to protect people seeking abortion healthcare from harassment and misinformation."

The session heard from a variety of opponents of the bill including a woman who was arrested in England for failing to comply with a Public Spaces Protection Order outside an abortion clinic and another woman who claimed information she received from a pro-life vigil helped her and stopped her from having an abortion.

Several of the opponents denied any "protests" were happening outside Scottish abortion providers, insisting vigils were not a form of protest. 

Meanwhile, there were concerns raised the bill assumes all "influence" of women going for abortions is negative. 

Mark Pickering, chief executive of the Christian Medical Fellowship, said he had concerns those who do not agree with abortion were being "lumped in with the crazy Covid sceptics".

He said: "There really is a campaign to suggest that everyone who has reservations about abortion [should be] lumped in with the crazy Covid sceptics. We must be careful."

He added: "There is an undercurrent in the bill that abortion is essential healthcare, that women make black and white decisions, and anyone who gives them any information that might help to dissuade them [from abortion] is doing a bad thing."

Pickering conceded protesters holding placards with messages on such as "abortion is murder" was not acceptable, but it was claimed by others this was not what was happening in Scotland.

Margaret Akers, from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said: "Protests are not happening. Vigils are what happens outside all the providers.

"What is happening and what this bill is aiming to get at is these vigils."