LEGISLATION designed to ban anti-abortion protests outside clinics in Scotland could become “unworkable” if MSPs cannot reach a conclusion on the issue of silent prayer, a charity has warned.

In a report published this week, the Scottish Parliament’s health committee unanimously agreed to the general principles of the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill proposed by Scottish Green MSP Gillian Mackay.

The report considered the conflicting human rights arguments relevant to the bill, but ultimately concluded they are “proportionate” to the legislation’s aims of ensuring women are able to safely access healthcare.

However, the committee had a “difference of views” over the issue of silent prayers, with some suggesting it should be an explicit exemption to avoid the “criminalisation of private thoughts". 

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Humanist Society Scotland has since raised concerns the bill could become “unworkable” if more clarity is not brought forward on the matter, warning that if the act is allowed it would create a “clear loophole” for anti-abortion activists to exploit.

A Stage One debate and vote on the legislation is due to take place in the chamber next Tuesday.

A spokesman for the charity said: “We are concerned that the committee failed to reach agreement on the issue of ‘silent prayer’ outside abortion facilities. 

“Some committee members even stated that silent prayer should be explicitly exempt from the bill. In our view, this would provide a clear loophole for anti-abortion activists to continue staging intimidating and inappropriate ‘prayer vigils'.

“The proposed bill has deliberately avoided specifying which acts would be outlawed within the safe access zones. Instead, it has focused on the intent of any action to impede, alarm, or distress patients and staff.

“We would strongly caution MSPs against introducing any exceptions to this approach. Such exceptions could render the bill unworkable.”

Witnesses in support of and against the bill appeared before MSPs in committee sessions over a four-week period earlier this year.

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

She said: “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.”

Bishop John Keenan also faced criticism when he compared prayer vigils to anti-nuclear peace camps at Faslane.

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.