Supreme Court ruling opens door to abortion protest 'buffer zones' in Scotland

Women protest for the right to abortion in London after the US Supreme Court controversially overturned Roe vs Wade <i>(Image: PA)</i>
Women protest for the right to abortion in London after the US Supreme Court controversially overturned Roe vs Wade (Image: PA)

NORTHERN Ireland’s bid to introduce “safe access zones” around clinics providing abortion services is legal and within competence, the UK’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The decision will be watched keenly in Scotland, where Green MSP Gillian Mackay is seeking to see similar “buffer zones” – areas in which anti-abortion protests are banned – set up around sexual health centres.

READ MORE: Supreme Court poses threat to abortion clinic buffer zones, says Green MSP

The focus of the ruling is on clause 5(2)(a) of the Northern Irish bill, which makes it a criminal offence “to do an act in a safe access zone with the intent of, or reckless as to whether it has the effect of … influencing a protected person, whether directly or indirectly”. Staff and patients at abortion clinics are covered by this “protected person” definition.

The bill was passed before the Stormont Assembly dissolved at the end of March.

Robert Reed (below), the Supreme Court’s president, has ruled that such exclusionary zones do not breach the European Convention on Human Rights, and that setting them up is within Stormont’s legislative power.

The National: Lord Reed
The National: Lord Reed

In a statement, the court said: “The Supreme Court unanimously holds that clause 5(2)(a) of the bill is compatible with the convention rights of those who seek to express their opposition to the provision of abortion treatment services in Northern Ireland.

“Accordingly, clause 5(2)(a) is within the legislative competence of the Assembly. Lord Reed gives the judgment, with which all the other members of the court agree.”

Central Scotland MSP Mackay previously told The National she was in no doubt that the Scottish version of the bill will also get taken to court if it’s passed.

READ MORE: Back Off Scotland call for buffer zones as anti-abortion protesters gather in Glasgow

She said: "We know our one is going to be challenged, someone is going to take it to court, so it’s about making it withstand that."

Speaking after the Supreme Court's ruling on Wednesday, Mackay said it set a vital precedent for her own bill at Holyrood.

She said: “This is a very welcome decision, and a truly historic day for reproductive rights. It will provide vital and much needed protections.

“Abortion rights are healthcare, and this sets a crucial precedent for the introduction of my Bill to introduce buffer zones in Scotland.

“The 12,000 responses that I received for my consultation show the strength of feeling. All over the world, anti-choice activists are trying to crackdown on abortion rights. We can’t stand still, and must always be looking to entrench and expand those rights.

“Nobody should be obstructed or harassed when accessing healthcare, yet, all across Scotland, people are being forced to endure a gauntlet of graphic images and abuse when accessing abortion services.

“This is totally wrong and I look forward to the day when my Bill will end such shameful scenes for good."

The Supreme Court's ruling can be found here.