LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Scottish Catholics are concerned over a bill published in their parliament to introduce “safe access zones” – or buffer zones – around abortion centers in Scotland, in which protests, including prayer services, would be prohibited.

Anthony Horan, director of the Catholic Parliamentary Office (CPO), says the proposed law would be the “most extreme of its kind in the world” and would criminalizing “audible prayer” and “silent vigils.” He warns it would even criminalize certain actions in private homes.

The proposed “safe access zone” includes not only the facility – usually a hospital – in which abortions are performed, but also land within 200 meters (a little over 650 feet) of the edge of the protected premises. The proposed law says the 200 meters may be extended by the Scottish government following an application by the relevant Health Board or health provider.

“Crucially, there is no upper limit on the size of ‘buffer zone’ the government can create,” the CPO says.

Within the buffer zone it would be illegal to commit an act with the following intentions, or to be reckless as to whether that act has any of these effects:

  • Influencing the decision of another person to access, provide or facilitate the provision of abortion services at the protected premises;
  • Preventing or impeding another person from accessing, providing or facilitating the provision of abortion services at the protected premises; and
  • Causing harassment, alarm or distress to another person in connection with the other person’s decision to access, provide or facilitate the provision of abortion services at the protected premises.

The proposed legislation makes it clear that “praying audibly” and “silent vigils” will be criminalized if they are carried out in conjunction with one of the listed effects.

Gillian Mackay, a member of the Scottish parliament from the Green Party, submitted the bill last year.

She told BBC Scotland the most “extreme” cases of protests against abortion had been outside the Sandyford clinic in Glasgow, where she said protesters have worn body cameras and used loudspeakers.

“Some of these appointments are traumatic in their nature, and take a lot of will to get there in the first place,” she said. “They don’t need any more barriers put in their way and neither should they have to face these barriers.”

The document from the CPO says the bill gives the government the power to extend restrictions to other buildings or places where “treatments or services relating to abortion services are provided” as protected premises. The Catholic group says this may include local doctor offices, sexual health clinics, pharmacies, and counselling services.

“The law would also apply to the actions of a person inside their own home in the buffer zone.  It would be illegal to display a pro-life sign from a window in one’s own home, school or church. Those who commit an offence may receive an unlimited fine,” the group continues.

The CPO says proposals are extremely disproportionate, unnecessary, intolerant, and attack civil liberties.

“The offences under the proposed bill would make it illegal to offer women help and will criminalize prayer, including audible prayer and silent vigils. In England, Catholics have already been arrested for praying silently under similar laws to those being proposed in Scotland,” the Catholic organization says.

The groups claims that if the Scottish government is allowed to decide when and where people can pray, then religious freedom is under serious threat.

“Existing law is adequate to deal with any serious problems which may arise at public gatherings.  Police in Scotland did not respond to the consultation on the proposed bill, and are not calling for more powers. There is no known record of an arrest, charge or conviction for harassment or intimidation relating to participants of pro-life prayer vigils in Scotland,” the CPO document says.

“It is deeply concerning that the bill includes an offence of ‘influencing’. This will set a dangerous precedent by criminalizing an individual who tries to ‘influence’ another person to change their mind, an innocent and harmless practice that is commonplace throughout society,” it continues.

The Catholic group notes that section 5 of the bill criminalizes certain actions even on private properties, including residential buildings” and is “likely to include other buildings such as schools and churches.”

The group says it is concerning that the proposed legislation’s “Delegated Powers Memorandum” explicitly admits that the bill makes “every effort” to “mitigate against … how anti-abortion activity may be expressed” – saying it suggests that an aim of the bill is to silence those who disagree with abortion.

Horan says Catholics need to do two things in response.

“Firstly, we need you to engage with the Scottish Parliament’s call for evidence on the bill. There are two ways to do this. You can complete a short survey, or a slightly longer, more detailed, survey,” the Catholic Parliamentary Office director said, noting the deadline for responses to the call for evidence is Dec. 20.

“Secondly, we need you to write to each of your [members of the Scottish Parliament] to warn them about the dangers of the bill, particularly the threat to the freedom to pray, free expression and freedom of assembly,” he said.