TORY MSPs have been forced to concede defeat in their efforts to bring several “loopholes” into buffer zone legislation.

The Scottish Parliament’s health committee debated the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill at Stage 2 on Tuesday, with the legislation seeking to prohibit anti-abortion protesters from demonstrating within 200m of a clinic.

MSPs overwhelming agreed to the principles of the bill at Stage 1 last month.

Tory MSP Jeremy Balfour brought forward a number of “wrecking” amendments proposing to create exemptions for those engaging in silent prayer outside a clinic and those performing chaplaincy services.

He also proposed scrapping an entire section of the bill that would make it an offence to influence or harass someone in an area visible or audible from a safe access zone, and suggested protests should be able to take place when abortion premises are not open.

Balfour additionally proposed there should be a “defence of reasonableness” for those prosecuted for behaviours in a buffer zone.

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But after lengthy discussions amongst the committee Balfour did not press any of these amendments.

Balfour claimed during the committee that he did not find many of the tactics of anti-abortion demonstrators “effective or helpful” but the Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register does show he has met with some of the most vocal opponents of the bill on several occasions including CARE for Scotland and Evangelical Alliance Scotland.

On a request to exempt silent prayer, Green MSP Gillian Mackay – who is spearheading the legislation – said: “I am convinced an exemption for silent prayer would undermine the bill. It is unnecessary and it would fundamentally weaken the protection the bill provides.

“It’s not because of the prayer, it’s because of the sense of judgment. It’s about the effects of this conduct, positioning themselves in that location on women and staff access the clinic.

“Setting silent prayer aside, the amendment could have the unintended consequences of creating loopholes for other conduct.”

Mackay added that removing section 5 as Balfour had suggested would mean there would be no protection against behaviours such as anti-abortion groups projecting intimidating images onto clinics from a private property – something which has occurred at the Chalmers Clinic in Edinburgh.  

Public Health Minister Jenni Minto said the Scottish Government did not object in principle to creating an exemption for chaplaincy services but stressed the issue needed more discussion.

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Humanist Society Scotland said they remain concerned about carving out a specific exemption for chaplaincy.

In a tweet the organisation said: “We believe legitimate chaplaincy services are already permitted by the bill.

“We understand the need to ensure this is beyond doubt. However, we would oppose any formalisation of anti-abortion activism by this route. Chaplains are there to support patients, not influence their decisions.”

Mackay added she felt it would be unlikely that the activities of chaplains would be caught by the bill as it is currently drafted.

Meghan Gallacher, deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives, also withdrew her proposal to introduce signage around safe access zones after others on the committee convinced her this would draw unnecessary attention to abortion services that would otherwise go unnoticed, potentially leading to anti-abortion groups gathering right on the edge of zones completely legally.

Mackay said: “For me it remains unclear that signs will provide the clarity Ms Gallacher seeks. It’s not practical or desirable to display signs around the entire perimeter of a zone.

“Signs will draw attention to abortion services that otherwise would’ve gone unnoticed. There’s palpable anxiety amongst staff about erecting a permanent advertisement.”

Rachael Hamilton, another Tory MSP, also withdrew her amendment which proposed reducing the size of buffer zones to 150m rather than 200m.

The bill will now progress to Stage 3 where more amendments could be introduced. If MSPs sign off on the bill at that stage, it will become law in Scotland.