Aberdeen could become one of Scotland’s first cities to trial a protest buffer zone around abortion clinics – if the first minister agrees to help with a local byelaw.
Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP city councillors have asked for her help in setting up the pilot scheme, as they try to regain control of a Town House row about their lack of urgency on the matter.
On Wednesday July 13 councillors will discuss plans for a byelaw as a stop gap until the Scottish Government might introduce new nationwide laws.
But there are fears limiting protest could lead to a “police state” in Scotland.
Last month the first minister announced Edinburgh and Glasgow could become Scotland’s first cities to bring in protest-free buffers.
The zones are to impose a 150-metre radius around clinics.
Government to look at ‘all options’ for abortion protest buffer zones – including in Aberdeen
And, now there are calls for this preliminary scheme to be extended in the north-east.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman told us they were working “as quickly as is practicable”.
She said: “We have committed to convene further discussions with local government on how best to make progress to protect patient rights and look at using byelaws to establish buffer zones.
“We will discuss all options with council umbrella body Cosla and local authorities.
“Women must be able to access abortion services without fear of harassment or intimidation in any way.”
Former depute provost’s fears for ‘democratic right to peaceful protest’
It comes as a former depute provost of Aberdeen attacks the plans, claiming they are an undemocratic means of “more control” for the government.
Hazlehead, Queen’s Cross and Countesswells councillor Jennifer Stewart – who made it clear she believes in everyone’s right to choose to have an abortion – is keen to protect the right to “peaceful protest and peaceful prayer”.
However, with the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade, there are fears similar groups might be “emboldened” to protest at facilities across the country.
Earlier this year, American-based anti-abortion group 40 Days For Life held a prayer vigil at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.
Council to debate an Aberdeen abortion buffer zone
And last week, Lord Provost David Cameron twice refused to allow debate on the need for a buffer zone at the Town House.
Councillors will now discuss the plans at a special meeting, after Mr Cameron refused to hear it last week as it was brought to him “too late”.
His decision was in spite of a promise of buffer zones in the SNP’s own Aberdeen manifesto ahead of the council elections in May.
She urged Nicola Sturgeon to reiterate her support for a byelaw, and “have a word” with the SNP council group to ensure it progresses quickly.
Her letter was quickly followed by another from the Aberdeen SNP deputy group leader Miranda Radley who acknowledged introducing buffer zones would be “complex and challenging”.
She added: “But I am resolute in belief that we need to see one established in Aberdeen, by whatever means.”
“I noted with great interest that you suggested a ‘test council’, or perhaps more than one council, could potentially proceed with a byelaw.
“I would be grateful if you could consider Aberdeen City Council to be a ‘test council’, and I would welcome any support that you could offer to help establish a buffer zone in Aberdeen.”
‘Police state’ concerns if protest buffer zones are introduced
The timing of the debate – in the council summer recess due to the earlier refusal to allow debate last week – is a worry for Mrs Stewart.
“I am concerned that something as important as this is being debated during the recess,” the Hazlehead, Queen’s Cross and Hazlehead councillor told us.
A Roman Catholic, she said she doesn’t support abortion but accepts “everyone has the right to choose”.
Mrs Stewart, who served as the chairwoman of her local Society for the Protection of Unborn Children group in her teens, believes there is a risk to democracy with such laws.
SPUC is the oldest pro-life campaigning organisation in the world.
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She added: “What I am saying is there is a risk to the democratic process and the right for peaceful protest and peaceful prayer.
“If people want to hold a night vigil, they should be able to. They don’t have to be right at the door.
“Do we then expand this across the board? Will trade unions be allowed to march down Union Street?
“People should be allowed a voice to be able to protest. It is not against the person, it is against the outcome.
“If you put buffer zones in place, we will be living in a more controlled country, almost like a police state.”