Abortion summit Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon says Scottish Government considering ‘test council’ to enact legislation on buffer zones

Nicola Sturgeon said the overturning of the landmark Roe v Wade decision would “embolden anti-abortion protesters in Scotland” as the country’s two biggest cities appear poised to trial buffer zones around abortion clinics.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks during a summit on abortion care in Edinburgh (Photo: Lesley Martin/PA Wire).
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks during a summit on abortion care in Edinburgh (Photo: Lesley Martin/PA Wire).

The First Minister announced the Scottish Government was looking at introducing a ‘test council’ to implement 150m buffer zones to protect women from anti-abortion harassment.

Speaking at an abortion summit in Edinburgh on Monday, both Ms Sturgeon and women’s health minister suggested this could be in either Glasgow or Edinburgh, or both, given the “scale” of protests in those areas.

It comes as anti-abortion protests in Scotland continue to rise this year, with women telling The Scotsman they felt intimidated, harassed and traumatised before accessing essential healthcare as a result of the protests.

The summit came just days after the US Supreme Court struck down the Roe v Wade decision, transforming abortion rights in America and allowing individual states to ban the procedure.

Ms Sturgeon said a way to protect women from such harassment “in the short-term” would be to implement buffer zones via council bylaws.

But the First Minister acknowledged there would be complexities around making legislation stand up to legal scrutiny.

Legal advice obtained by council umbrella body Cosla last year had stated local authorities could not use bylaws to implement buffer zones at NHS reproductive health facilities.

Health secretary Humza Yousaf said the summit had heard from legal academics across other the world showing the legal challenges were not “insurmountable”.

Ms Sturgeon said the Government was keen to hold discussions with councils and Cosla on the issue.

Anti-abortion group 40 days for Life is planning a ‘peaceful prayer vigil’ for September in areas such as Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Speaking about the potential council for such a test, Ms Sturgeon said Glasgow was an “obvious place” to enact such by-laws given the “high-profile” protests outside hospitals and clinics such as the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and the Sandyford Clinic.

Ms Todd also pointed to Glasgow being an "obvious choice”, but said she was more than happy to have a discussion with “any council” willing to seek such by-laws.

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Ms Sturgeon said: “Glasgow and Edinburgh are clearly the councils where this is the biggest issue, although there are other health boards where we are seeing these protests.

“I don’t have the power to pick a council and say ‘you will do this’, but I’m certainly keen to have discussions with Cosla and willing councils and certainly I hope Glasgow and Edinburgh would be around that table to look at whether one or both of them would be prepared, with the right support and backing from the Government, to use the by-law powers that they have.”

Lucy Grieve, co-founder of Back Off Scotland, which has been campaigning for 150m buffer zones around abortion clinics, said she did “not have any doubts” the First Minister plans to legislate as she said it appears a “more open and transparent” conversation was being had by the Government.

Ms Sturgeon gave the Government's backing to a member's bill, led by Green MSP Gillian Mackay, aimed at protecting access to terminations.

She stressed work was underway to ensure there was “more access than there has been” for mid-trimester abortions, as she said the Government was working with health boards to ensure telemedical abortions was something all women could access.

A shortage of trained clinicians in Scotland has been blamed for access issues.

Ms Sturgeon, who had previously described the overturning of legal protections for abortion in the US as “one of the darkest days for women’s rights", said she worried the ruling would embolden anti-abortion activists in the UK.

“That will be the case in countries across the world, often what we see in the United States spreads to other countries,” she said.

"First and foremost, it is a catastrophic and horrific decision for women in the US.”

Scottish Labour’s Monica Lennon, who initially called for the emergency meeting, said the summit was overall “a positive experience” that demonstrated “cross-party support” and “real determination across Government”.

In an interview ahead of the summit, SNP MP John Mason had said women were finding themselves on “a conveyor belt” at clinics and hospitals and were not having information made available to them.

Ms Lennon described the “disinformation campaign” as "disappointing and worrying”, and stressed the SNP needed to take action to stop Mr Mason from “undermining healthcare workers and women”.

Ms Sturgeon said she “vehemently disagrees” with Mr Mason on his views on abortion, but claimed “people are entitled to express those views”.

She said: “What I don’t want to see is that view influencing government policy and it doesn’t.”

The SNP has so far avoided taking direct action against Ms Mason, despite education secretary Shirley Anne-Somerville on Monday joining those within the party to condemn the MSP’s views.

Mr Yousaf said any disinformation on the lack of informed consent would be “challenged robustly”.

Asked if Mr Mason should be disciplined by the party, Mr Yousaf said it was something “for the party as a whole to consider”.