Plans to protect women attending medical appointments including abortions from protesters have been put on hold – but the council will “revisit the issue, should the situation increase in intensity”.
An investigation was launched to potentially set up “buffer zones” for people accessing medical services at the Chalmers Centre and the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary following concerns that anti-abortion protesters were holding regular vigils.
Following a motion from Green Cllr Claire Miller last year, the council’s south east locality committee agreed to set up a community improvement partnership with police, the Royal Infirmary and the Chalmers Centre to oversee the current situation. The committee has now agreed, at this time, the buffer zone proposals will only be revisited if the situation worsens.
Cllr Miller, who represents the city centre, said: “I’m very grateful for the work the NHS, police and the council have done to investigate. I raised this issue so that everyone involved could jointly review the problem and agree how to respond to prayers or vigils being held outside. I’ve always said I support the right of campaigners to express their views, but that it’s not appropriate outside clinics where patient access to healthcare could be impacted.
“I welcome the decision by the committee to monitor the situation and to enable patient feedback. It’s important that we ensure everyone is able to access all the healthcare services offered at the Chalmers Centre without any problems at all.”
Last year, Professor Alison McCallum, director of public health and health policy for NHS Lothian, raised concerns that patients should be able to access appointments “without discrimination or intimidation”.
Healthcare bosses have now highlighted that outside the Chalmers Centre, five protesters often attend once a week – and that there is “a woman who does at times approach clients entering the building”, which has been know to “upset the visitors”. The NHS will offer further contact with the council “if the situation were to deteriorate”. Rachael Craik, from the council’s safer and stronger communities team, said although “there is an upsurge during the Lent period”, health chiefs “feel they have things under control at the moment”.
A report to councillors adds: “Overall both representatives from the NHS felt that as things currently stood there was no overwhelming evidence to suggest the actions were causing unnecessary distress and as such did not feel the necessity to enact any police measures.
“Also of note was the general concern within the group that if any police action where to be taken, more attention would be focused on the clinics and those using them which could create unwanted attention.”
The decision to keep monitoring the situation and put the buffer zone plans on hold has been welcomed by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC).
Michael Robinson, communications director for SPUC (Scotland), said: “We know that poor women in Scotland have abortion rates twice as high as those who are well off.
“Peaceful pro-life vigils offer practical, emotional and financial support to vulnerable women who might otherwise be forced into an abortion they do not want. This is a significant victory for common sense, for free speech and above all for the many vulnerable women who choose to have their babies with assistance from pro-life vigils.”