Young Women and Safe Access Zones

Young Women and Safe Access Zones

Dr Rebecca Mason, research & policy lead smiling at the camera.
By: Dr Rebecca Mason Research and Policy Lead
Published on:
  • Consultation response
  • Health
  • Rights

In this post, our Research and Policy Lead Rebecca discusses the proposed Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill, our response to the most recent consultation, and why the voices of young women must be meaningfully included in the Bill’s development.

The Young Women’s Movement recently submitted a response on the proposed Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill after engaging with young women to hear their views on the Bill. This Bill seeks to introduce safe access zones (also known as ‘buffer zones’) around hospitals and clinics where abortion services are provided in Scotland. You can read our full submission here, which covers the specific questions raised in the consultation.  

The Young Women’s Movement wholeheartedly supports this Bill because we believe that women and pregnant people should be legally entitled to access abortion and associated sexual and reproductive healthcare services, information and advice without fear of intimidation and harassment.  

In the Women’s Health Plan 2021-24, the Scottish Government promised to work together with the NHS, local authorities and justice agencies “to find ways of preventing women feeling harassed when accessing abortion care due to protests or vigils.” This Bill represents a step in the right direction by ensuring that women in Scotland are legally protected when accessing abortion services for reasons that remain personal to them and their healthcare provider.  

Safe access zones are now in law in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, leaving Scotland behind the rest of the UK. To work towards ensuring a more equal society, the Young Women’s Movement believes that MSPs should pass this legislation to ensure that women across Scotland are legally entitled to access abortion healthcare free of intimidation and harassment.  

Why does this Bill matter for young women? 

Safe access zones are desperately needed to ensure the privacy and dignity of young women accessing abortion healthcare in Scotland. In the UK, 1 in 3 women will have an abortion by the time they are 45 years old. Physical and legal barriers to accessing abortion healthcare facilities therefore have a detrimental and disproportionate impact on young women and put them at an even greater disadvantage in terms of their unequal access to healthcare.  

As noted in our Status of Young Women in Scotland 2022-23 report, young women continue to face substantial obstacles when accessing healthcare, including contraception, abortion and post-abortion services in Scotland. At the Young Women’s Movement, we believe that attempts to infringe upon women’s right to safely access abortion services fundamentally attack women’s equality and devalue women’s place in society. 

For too long young women across Scotland have struggled to access abortion services due to patriarchal legal rules and institutions. In the twenty-first century, those seeking abortion and associated reproductive healthcare should be able to access it safely, without being judged, shamed, intimidated and harassed for doing so.  

How did we respond to the consultation?

The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee asked numerous questions about the purpose of the Bill, including: the setting of safe access zones nationally and locally at 200 metres; the penalty for offences related to the Bill; the impact of the Bill on Articles 8, 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights; the associated powers of Scottish Ministers to alter or reduce safe access zones; and if existing legislation could be amended to introduce and regulate safe access zones.   

The Bill is not concerned with whether or not abortion services should be legal and does not propose any changes to abortion law in Scotland. Instead, the Bill is concerned with the legal regulation of protests (both pro and anti-choice) outside hospitals and clinics that offer abortion services, including the display of graphic signs and posters, following and filming women entering clinics, and distributing leaflets with potentially false or dangerous information.  

If passed, the Bill would ultimately put a stop to all disruptive activity taking place directly outside hospitals and clinics, ensuring that all groups are forbidden from pressuring or influencing women seeking access to abortion services, as well as intimidating or upsetting staff on their way to work.  

We believe that the Bill rightfully prioritises and protects the rights and dignity of women to access abortion healthcare without fear of intimidation or harassment and that this is a fair and proportionate way of legally regulating this difficult and highly contentious issue. 

It is imperative that all hospitals, healthcare facilities and sites that provide abortion care in Scotland are treated equally and that all have safe access zones in place. Without a blanket legal rule, women in Scotland will be subject to patchwork protections and wholly reliant on pro-active health boards to protect their right to safely access abortion healthcare.  

What do young women think?  

To formulate our response to the consultation we engaged with young women in our Advisory Collective, who told us their views of the Bill. Many of the young women we spoke to agreed that safe access zones should apply to all forms of protest. One young woman even stated that it is “an equal Bill which would prioritise the peaceful experience of the women seeking to access healthcare.”  

People who are convicted of offences relating to the Bill will be subject to a fine. Most of the young women we engaged with agreed with the penalty for offences related to the Bill, though some expressed concerns that a fine did not go far enough to deter protestors from gathering in large groups. One young woman noted that the use of fines appears to have worked well in Northern Ireland, and that “anything less than a fine would not be severe enough”. 

Some of the young women we engaged with noted that protestors could find other ways to intimidate women accessing hospitals and clinics offering abortion services. For example, one young woman noted that audio or visual equipment could be used to continue to intimidate or harass women either within or directly outside the safe access zone, and that the Bill should ensure a ban on the use of technology to digitally harass patients’ and staff entering hospitals and clinics that provide abortion services.  

We therefore asked the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee to carefully consider the various scenarios whereby protestors could continue to harass women accessing abortion healthcare services, both now and in future.  

Young women recognise the importance of getting this legislation right to ensure all women across Scotland can legally access hospitals and clinics offering abortion services without fear of intimidation and harassment; a right that is already afforded to women in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

If you have any questions about our consultation response, please do not hesitate to contact our Research and Policy Lead, Dr Rebecca Mason via email here.

Watch Dr Rebecca Mason give evidence on the Bill at the Scottish Parliament in the video below.

Further reading: 

British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) – Considering Abortion 

Back Off Scotland – The Facts 

Engender – Safe Access to Abortion Services in Scotland

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