I DON’T believe for a minute that Humza Yousaf supports sex-selective abortion.

I certainly don’t believe the topic will be a key consideration for SNP members as they start casting their votes for a new party leader. But it’s a sign of how messy this leadership campaign has become that the door has been opened for mud-slinging on this topic as Scotland’s next first minister is being chosen.

The suggestion about Yousaf’s position has arisen following his response to questions from campaign group Back Off Scotland about his stance on buffer zones around abortion clinics, improved access to late-term abortion in Scotland, and removing abortion from the criminal law. In his reply, he endorsed both of the first two policy positions and also, according to the group, committed to “bringing forward abortion decriminalisation proposals by the end of this parliament (!!)” (sic).

Well, (!!) indeed. Yousaf’s pledge might seem surprising given that the government in which he is Health Secretary stated as recently as last October that while it was open to “reviewing the law in future”, it was for now focusing its attention on the introduction of buffer zones and – crucially – ensuring that women seeking abortions after 20 weeks do not need to travel to England, as is currently – shockingly – the case.

The National:

Ash Regan has reportedly also pledged to “remove abortion care from criminal law” – a policy in line with long-standing calls from the British Medical Association and numerous feminist groups.

Most people would interpret this commitment, and Yousaf’s, as an endorsement of “abortion on demand” – that is, without the need to meet the medical criteria currently set out in law.

It will surprise no-one who understands the tactics of anti-abortion groups that these pledges have been seized upon to raise the prospect of women – in particular ethnic minority women – demanding abortions in circumstances that would make a lot of people uncomfortable. It’s notable that the headlines on religious “news” websites have seized on Yousaf’s response, not Regan’s. Is that because Regan is unlikely, based on poll data, to become first minister, or because she is white?

One has to assume Yousaf’s team weighed up the pros and cons of committing to a policy position on abortion that has not been put before the SNP members, and which went one step further in terms of urgency than that of Regan.

Politically, they would have considered the “optics” of a male candidate seeking to outflank his opponents on women’s rights, and it’s worth pondering whether Yousaf would have felt the need to up the ante on abortion had the polls showed Forbes’s campaign being derailed by her comments on issues including gay marriage or the Gender Recognition Reform Bill.

At a hustings on Saturday, Yousaf was a little more measured, saying he would “want to explore” how to pursue decriminalisation.

This might not be straightforward, either practically or politically. Indeed, there appears to be some confusion about what exactly needs to be done, and why.

Jonathan Brown, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Stirling, has described abortion law in Scotland as being “in a sorry, confusing and unsatisfactory state” and in need of clarification.

He has highlighted the fact that while many people believe that the Abortion Act 1967 – which applies in Scotland, England and Wales – “legalised” abortion in Scotland under certain conditions, this was not actually the case at all.

In fact, “therapeutic termination” was already legal in Scotland, so in reality the 1967 act restricted access to the procedure by requiring the approval of two doctors.

Confused? Even some of those pushing for change appear to be.

A petition lodged with the Scottish Parliament last year, calling for the law to be amended to “fully decriminalise abortion in Scotland”, made reference to a piece of UK legislation, the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which criminalised women seeking or attempting to terminate their pregnancy.

A briefing note from the Scottish Parliament pointed out that this law never applied to Scotland.

Are the candidates for first minister seeking to ensure the decriminalisation of women seeking an abortion, those providing unsafe abortions, or both?

Is this a higher or lower priority than improving access to abortion in Scotland within the current legal constraints?

If the Gender Recognition Reform Bill debacle has taught politicians anything, it is that the “exploring” stage should come first, before promising any particular outcome within a particular time frame to a particular group.

Had Yousaf been facing a different main opponent, one suspects he may have been content to take abortion policy one step at a time, with a focus on ensuring there is provision when and where it is needed.

One thing is guaranteed; those who oppose women’s right to choose will grab with both hands any opportunity to fearmonger about abortion. Politicians should arm themselves with all the necessary facts before they enter into this particular battle.