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‘It’s an emergency’: activists call for clinic buffer zones as anti-abortion protests grow

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Scottish activists are leading a campaign to introduce buffer zones outside of healthcare clinics as threats from the pro-life movement rise across the UK.

15 Jul 2022

Content warning: this article contains mention of abortion, rape, sexual assault

Edinburgh’s Chalmers Sexual Health Centre can be hard to find without a maps app. Across a quiet, narrow street from the larger hospital, the clinic’s entrance is tucked behind a stone wall. Inside it offers a range of services: emergency contraception, colposcopies, sexual assault counselling, STI and HIV testing, as well as abortions. 

In 2019, Alice Murray, then a 19-year-old student at the University of Edinburgh, was referred to Chalmers clinic for this latter service, after she chose to terminate her pregnancy. “I just found out I was pregnant and had only been seeing my boyfriend at the time for a few weeks,” says Alice. “I definitely didn’t want to have a baby and it was an easy decision that I felt really comfortable making. So, I went to have an early stage medical abortion which is two pills: one taken in the clinic and one you take at home.”

For her first appointment, Alice arrived at the clinic, only to be met by six people holding signs and standing across from the entrance. As she got closer, she realised they were anti-abortion protestors. “Chalmers Street is a really quiet street and there’s only a small pavement, so if there are people there holding signs it’s really obvious and you can’t avoid them,” she remembers. “They didn’t come up to me but their presence was so bizarre. I was aware that anti-choice protestors existed and I guess it’s not what you’re thinking about when you’re going to get any kind of healthcare.”

Although the protestors didn’t speak to Alice, she had to contend with walking past them and their signs – placards that are becoming increasingly common outside health clinics – with statements like “Pray to end abortion”, “Women do regret abortion” and “Abortion is murder” splashed across them.

“I felt patronised, angry, and really intimidated,” says Alice. “It’s a political choice to stand protesting outside a clinic, whereas for me, my decision didn’t feel very political at the time. It felt like a decision I was making for myself and a healthcare decision.”

Alice calls her run-in with anti-abortion protestors “relatively lucky” in comparison to what other people seeking abortions are experiencing. The overturning of Roe v Wade in the United States in June has made it horrifyingly clear that reproductive justice sits on a knife’s edge around the world. 

“I felt patronised, angry, and really intimidated”

Alice Murray

While abortion has been legal in Scotland, Wales and England since 1967 under the Abortion Act, it’s dependent on the approval of two doctors and the request for an abortion must meet one of five criteria. In Northern Ireland, abortion was decriminalised in 2019, yet the country still has no commissioned or funded abortion services. In Scotland, an investigation found that in the last three years, 170 Scottish people have been sent across the border to England to access abortion services – some travelling as far as 700 miles. 

Meanwhile, protests outside abortion and sexual health clinics are becoming increasingly common, with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) finding that 100,000 people in the UK attended abortion services targeted by protesters in 2019. Some of these events have links to the US, with the Daily Record revealing in March this year that 40 Days For Life, an American organisation that has ran campaigns against abortion in over 60 countries, recruited and funded Scottish protestors. “The same people who [wanted] abortion to be illegal in America are the same people protesting here in Scotland,” Alice says.  

The high frequency of anti-abortion protests led Alice and other campaigners to push the government to implement buffer zones: a specific distance surrounding abortion and sexual health clinics where anti-abortion protestors can’t stand. These legally protected zones are vital in securing safe access to services, both for patients and hospital staff, who are also being targeted by protestors

But buffer zones still remain difficult to implement in the UK, with anti-abortion protestors arguing that they criminalise freedom of speech and religious expression. In 2018 the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid rejected calls for a buffer-zone policy across England and Wales, and there are currently only buffer zones around clinics in Ealing, Richmond upon Thames and Fallowfield.

Alice, who co-founded Back Off Scotland after her experience in 2019, says the protests have only gotten worse in the years since. “The way they protest is getting more aggressive and more in your face,” she says. “At the moment we’re seeing a lot more angry, organised people who are playing music and being loud. We don’t know why that is, maybe some backlash to our campaign.” 

“The same people who want abortion to be illegal in America are protesting here in Scotland”

Alice

In the past, the Scottish government and local authorities have had conflicting legal advice about whether or not city councils have the ability to use bylaws to impose buffer zones outside abortion clinics in their local areas. When Back Off Scotland first proposed these zones to Edinburgh City Council, they were initially met with a positive response. 

“But then they said that they didn’t want to be responsible and they didn’t feel like they had the legal powers to impose buffer zones,” Alice recalls. “We decided that the best way to go about implementing buffer zones would be national legislation through parliament.”

The campaign came to the attention of Gillian Mackay, a Scottish Green MSP for Central Scotland, in October 2021, who is now working with Back Off Scotland and BPAS to introduce legislation for a 150-metre buffer zone around hospital sites and clinics that provide abortion services in Scotland. 

“It was quite obvious that this was more than just a group of folk from Edinburgh who had an axe to grind with abortion,” explains Mackay. “Seeing the increase in both frequency and the number [of protestors] outside the hospitals was particularly concerning for me because it is a basic human right to be able to access healthcare without fear of intimidation.” 

“Some of the stories we were hearing were harrowing,” she adds. “We’ve heard from neonatal intensive care consultants that you can hear the protestors within their units and we know from that protestors outside Sandyford Clinic in Glasgow can be heard inside certain rooms, including rape counselling services.”

Mackay was inspired by her colleague Clare Bailey, leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland and former Member of the Legislative Assembly, who successfully helped pass the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill in Northern Ireland earlier this year by bringing it forward as a Private Member’s Bill. The Bill is currently awaiting Royal Assent to become law, but it marks the first time pro-choice legislation has passed in Northern Ireland, where abortion was decriminalised over two years ago.

“Scotland likes to think it’s a progressive country, but looking at the US, it’s very clear that it’s not enough to just stand still”

Gillian Mackay

Mackay’s proposed Private Member’s Bill is currently in its consultation stage during which the public is being asked to give their feedback on the proposed 150-metre buffer zone. In just a week after launching the consultation, Mackay had received over 1,000 responses from the public. Recent polling indicates that the majority of the Scottish public support calls for buffer zones, with fewer than one in 12 opposing them. 

But while the Member’s Bill is beginning its journey, it may be over a year until it passes through parliament. For Back Off Scotland, that’s simply too long to wait: “While a Private Member’s Bill is great, every single time someone is outside picketing a hospital and people are going in – whether that’s for an abortion or STIs or to get hormones – there are barriers in place and people at risk of being traumatised. I would class that as an emergency.”

After months of campaigners, including Back Off Scotland, BPAS and Rape Crisis Scotland, demanding that the Scottish government take emergency action, a summit was finally confirmed and chaired by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in June, a few days after Roe v Wade was overturned in the US. At the summit, Sturgeon announced that the Scottish Government would push for buffer zones to be trialled in Glasgow and Edinburgh as “test councils” for possible future nationwide legislation. 

“After two years of inaction and vague answers from the Scottish government, it was great to have strong words of support from the First Minister at [the] summit,” says Alice. “The summit highlighted that there are many areas of abortion care that need to be improved in Scotland, and harassment outside is just one of those. But I am pleased that the government held their hands up and admitted that they are not doing enough and they are committed to improving it.”

“I can’t imagine the anxiety at this moment for some people who are maybe going to [abortion] services and are concerned that there are protests there,” says Mackay. “Scotland likes to think it’s a progressive country, but looking at the US, it’s very clear that it’s not enough to just stand still. We need to keep making progress and making sure we’re prioritising this sphere of work because when you take the eye off the ball, things start to roll back.” 

Consultation on the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill will run until 11 August 2022. The consultation can be completed online by going to this link. To find out more about Back Off Scotland’s campaign, visit their website

To find out more about accessing abortion services in the UK, visit BPAS

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