Abortion Healthcare

– in the Scottish Parliament on 12th May 2022.

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Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

6. To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will convene an emergency summit on abortion healthcare in response to anti-abortion rights action in Scotland and around the world. (S6F-01094)

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Women have the right to access abortion without fear or intimidation. To that end, let me say this again to anyone who wants to protest against abortion: do it outside Parliament. Protesting outside hospitals or sexual health clinics targets women, not lawmakers, and it causes stress and anxiety to those who are accessing healthcare. That, in my view, is deeply wrong.

I strongly support the introduction of buffer zones, and the Government is actively considering how this Parliament can legislate in a way that is effective and capable of withstanding legal challenge. I am also aware that Gillian Mackay might shortly consult on a member’s bill on the issue.

On the latter point about legality, members will be aware that the law on buffer zones that was passed in Northern Ireland has recently been referred to the Supreme Court. The outcome of that might have relevance for any steps that we take here. In the meantime, as we consider and, I hope, resolve issues around national legislation, we will support any local authority that is willing to use byelaws to establish buffer zones.

Finally, I am very happy to convene—indeed, I will personally chair—a round-table summit to discuss buffer zones and any other matters that need to be addressed to ensure safe and timely access to abortion services in Scotland within the current law.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

I warmly welcome the First Minister’s agreement to convene an urgent summit, which more than a dozen women’s organisations have called for. I also welcome her personal commitment to chair the talks and to facilitate politicians, campaigners and healthcare experts working together. That is hugely important, and I thank her.

Does the First Minister agree that we must use the forum to actively demonstrate our solidarity with women in America, and around the world, who fear that their legal rights are slipping away, while we also take urgent action to deal with the challenges facing people who access and provide abortion healthcare in Scotland?

Although it is the case that operational policing matters are for Police Scotland, does the First Minister agree that it is important that any member of the public who experiences harassment or intimidation when seeking to access or provide such healthcare must feel confident that if they come forward to the police with complaints, those will be properly investigated?

The First Minister:

I agree with all that Monica Lennon has said. I will address each of her points briefly.

First, I agree that it is important to show solidarity on such issues. The attack on abortion rights that we are seeing—chiefly in the United States, as a result of the concern about the overturning of Roe v Wade, but also in other countries—is deeply concerning. Let us call it what it is: an attack on the right of women to control our own bodies. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, and that those of us who hold that view have a duty to show solidarity with those in other parts of the world where that right is coming under most significant attack.

On police powers, of course those are operational matters for the police. It would be wrong for me to say how the police should use those powers, but there are powers under antisocial behaviour legislation that are there for the police, should they judge that it is appropriate to use them.

Finally, everybody, without exception, should have the right to access healthcare without fear and intimidation. That applies to any woman—no woman does this lightly—who is seeking to access abortion services completely within the law. I say again to those who want to protest: in a democracy there is absolutely a right to protest, but come to Parliament and protest against lawmakers. Do not cause women to feel fear, anxiety and intimidation.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

If there is going to be a summit on abortion healthcare, will the 24-week limit be under review? Science and medicine have moved on since 1990 and many children are surviving at 23 weeks.

The First Minister:

No—that would not be on the agenda of the summit that I have agreed to convene. I do not support a reduction in the current time limit for abortion. On the contrary, the challenge in Scotland is to ensure that women—and I repeat that this is something that no woman does lightly—who need to access that right can do so in a safe and timely manner.

Photo of Gillian Mackay Gillian Mackay Green

As we have heard, the First Minister will be aware of the loud protest outside the Sandyford clinic in Glasgow yesterday. Not only do such protests intimidate many of the people who use those services, but clinicians have contacted me to say that the protest forced the clinic to close particular rooms on one side of the building, due to the amplification system that the protesters were using. As part of the summit that the First Minister has just committed to, will she ensure that clinical and trade union representatives are present, as well as patients’ representatives, to ensure that clinicians are not subject to harassment when they are simply doing their jobs?

The First Minister:

I will give that commitment. I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to Gillian Mackay for the work that she has done on the issue. I hope that she will agree to take part in the summit that we are talking about.

Even if the Sandyford clinic was providing only abortion services, the protests outside it would, in my view, be wrong because they cause women to feel intimidation and anxiety. However, a range of sexual health services are provided by the Sandyford clinic. The last thing that anybody should be doing is making it harder for people to access those services and clinicians to go about the jobs that they do.

I appeal again to those who want to protest. Let me underline this point: it is a right in a democracy to protest—I am not questioning that in any way, shape or form—but the place to protest is where the laws are made. The people to protest to are us—parliamentarians and lawmakers. Allow people to exercise the right to access healthcare in the way that we all have a right to do, without any fear and intimidation and without added stress and anxiety; that is the decent thing to do.