Abortion clinic buffer zones should be a high priority for Humza Yousaf – Alex Cole-Hamilton

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We live in a time of picket lines. Teachers, civil servants and nurses – I’ve spoken with each on the protests that have punctuated their industrial action since last summer. My wife, a teacher herself, even took our puppy to one just after Christmas.

However, there is one kind of picket for which I have no time for whatsoever. I’m talking about the kind which sits in judgment of women, sometimes at their most vulnerable, trying to access the medical care they need to terminate a pregnancy. Over the weekend, hundreds of anti-abortion activists gathered outside Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow. Dr Greg Irwin, a consultant there, called the gathering “catastrophically horrible”.

For me and my party, it’s as simple as this: nobody should have to cross a line of protest to access intimate medical care. I’ve supported a proposal from Gillian Mackay MSP for a new law that would see a 150-metre safe-access zone implemented around clinics offering abortion services since the start. It’s nearly two years since it was first proposed – we urgently need to accelerate its introduction to parliament.

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As a liberal, I will defend the right to free speech and to protest to the hilt, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes. This bill will not prevent people from protesting the policies which allow abortion, it just regulates where that can happen and will ensure the access and protection of women seeking vital healthcare services. If you really disagree with our abortion laws you can protest at parliament to your heart's content.

The reasons a woman may choose to access abortion services are extremely complex and deeply personal. I am aware of my privilege that as a man, I will never be put in a position where I would have to make such a decision.

Over the past ten years, I have spent time with campaigners and those affected. The women I have met tell me that this is never a decision taken lightly.

Former US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote of a women’s right to choose that “it is a decision she must make for herself”. When that decision is taken from her, “she’s being treated as less than a fully responsible adult responsible for her choices”.

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Safe access to abortion facilities with the introduction of buffer zones is a crucial part of a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. The Scottish public share this view well, with a poll revealing that 82 per cent of Scots agree with ending targeted harassment outside abortion clinics. It is now almost five years since I first raised the issue in parliament, yet while buffer zone legislation covering England, Wales, and Northern Ireland has made progress, Scotland is the only country in the UK without adequate protection to healthcare services.

Protesters pictured outside the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow earlier this yearProtesters pictured outside the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow earlier this year
Protesters pictured outside the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow earlier this year

As the new First Minister, Humza Yousaf faces plenty of challenges, but he needs to urgently act on his predecessor’s promise that abortion buffer zones will be implemented across Scotland. The Scottish Liberal Democrats will continue to press the government to ensure that every woman in Scotland has safe and equal access to lifesaving healthcare services, and that never again should they have to cross a picket line to do so.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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