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Bishop criticises SNP after party disciplines MSP over abortion comments

THE BISHOP of Paisley has criticised the SNP after the party disciplined John Mason over controversial comments around the large-scale anti-abortion protests outside hospitals and clinics across Scotland.

John Keenan accused the party of “political censorship” and cautioned against making abortion a “party political issue in Great Britain.”

Mr Mason, who represents Glasgow Shettleston in Holyrood, and attends Easterhouse Baptist Church, has previously questioned whether there was always informed consent around abortion, claiming that medical professionals did not always ask women seeking the procedure “how they feel.”

“Some clinics seem to be pushing abortion without laying out the pros and cons,” he said. 

He said the groups staging anti-abortion demonstrations were “very gentle and offering help” and not “hateful or harassing.”

In a later interview, he compared some women undergoing abortions as having “effectively found themselves on a conveyor belt”.

The comments were rejected by Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Gregor Smith and National Clinical Director, Professor Jason Leitch, who said there was “no evidence to suggest that abortion providers are not seeking informed consent from patients.”

A letter from June, leaked to the Daily Record, revealed that party bosses had carpeted the MSP for the remarks. 

SNP whips Stuart McMillan and Gordon MacDonald accused Mr Mason of a “lack of sensitivity” and said he had brought the “Parliamentary group into disrepute.”

They added: “We would like to make it clear that we absolutely respect your right to hold your views on abortion and your right to freedom of speech and expression.

“We do not, however, believe that you have the right to impose these views on others.”

The letter continued: “The verbalisation of your views has caused great distress and trauma to many women and have also been regarded as misinformation by medical professionals.”

In his response, Mr Mason accused the party of creating confusion: “You say that I have the ‘right to freedom of speech and expression’ on abortion but later that the ‘verbalisation of your views has caused great distress and trauma’. I am struggling to see how these two fit together.”

Mr Mason said the SNP had traditionally “allowed freedom of conscience and a free vote on issues like abortion and assisted dying.” 

He pointed out that his views had been well known in the eight elections he stood in and won, including the 2008 Glasgow East by-election where the SNP “accepted that my pro-life position was helping our campaign.”

Mr Mason said the party could “lose SNP and independence voters if we are to exclude all pro-life voices in Parliament.”

Responding to the row, Bishop Keenan told The Herald: “We would urge all political parties to respect that in our democratic system MSPs are elected first of all to serve the whole people of Scotland, especially in issues of personal conscience, rather than always following the interests of their parties.  

“We would also point out that abortion has never been a party political issue in Great Britain and we would urge Scottish politicians not to abandon this sensible position but to reassure the Scottish people that it will remain a matter of personal conscience that parliament respects both for the Scottish citizens it serves and for its elected MSPs.

“We would also point out that the human right to freedom of expression applies just as much to MSPs, and that it is a serious misunderstanding of the right to view it as only about a right to hold personal views but not about the right to voice them.  

“Any of our recognised conventions on human rights means freedom of speech as respecting both the right to hold views and the right to voice them in public.

“If Scotland is to be a mature democracy on the world stage it has to have the self-confidence to give a hearing to all views expressed in good faith in the round and to avoid the sort of political censorship we reject in other undemocratic parts of the world that allow no challenge to their perceived status quo.”

There was support too for Mr Mason from former Tory MSP Adam Tomkins. 

“The disciplining of John Mason for expressing his deeply held views does nothing to dispel the impression that Holyrood is full of nodding yesmen and yeswomen, devoid of people who can think for themselves,” he tweeted. “Whatever your view of Mr Mason—and his opinions—it’s not a good look.”

Back Off Scotland – who campaign for buffer zones around clinics to prevent anti-abortion campaigners from staging demonstrations – said there was a difference between having opinions and sharing misinformation. 

A spokesperson for the group said: “John is obviously entitled to his own views on abortion, but he cannot use his platform as a parliamentarian to spread harmful narratives about abortion access in Scotland.

“Whilst we’re glad the SNP have taken action on this, John has continued to spread misinformation and cause distress since this [discipline] letter was sent in June which is unacceptable.”

Earlier this month, as she set out her programme for government, Nicola Sturgeon re-committed to introducing national legislation on buffer zones. 

The First Minister said she would work with Green MSP Gillian Mackay MSP to introduce national legislation for safe access zones around healthcare settings that provide abortion services.

She told MSPs this would “safeguard the access of women to abortion services without harassment or intimidation.”

Initially, the Scottish Government said local byelaws could be used to introduce buffer zones, but this was rejected by council umbrella body Cosla obtained a legal opinion disputing that.

A key obstacle to any national law is that protesters have a right to freedom of speech.

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