Abortion clinic buffer zones: Good idea or is Scotland living in the 'Stone Age of free speech'?

·6-min read
Abortion clinic buffer zones: Good idea or is Scotland living in the 'Stone Age of free speech'?

The two middle-aged men protesting outside a Glasgow sexual health clinic brandished signs with bible verses equating abortion to murder, while one appeared to be wearing a bodycam, filming anyone who went inside.

Their actions, say counter-protesters, amount to harassment of staff and patients who use the Sandyford clinic and have contributed to plans for a new buffer zone that would stop any protests or vigils around clinics which provide abortion services in Scotland.

Supporters of the move say it would de-escalate an often fractious atmosphere that is intimidating for patients; while opponents say it clamps down on their freedom of speech and freedom to protest.

"At Sandyford, the boundary of the building is right on the pavement, so it's not like a campus hospital where protesters might be kept far away," explained Gillian Mackay, a Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Greens, who has introduced a bill to create the buffer zones to keep protesters 150 metres away from clinics where abortions are provided.

"These protesters are outside the front door with a loud hailer, which can be heard inside the building, and clinicians are having to move services from the front of the building due to the noise," she told Euronews.

Sandyford, like other sexual health clinics, doesn't only provide abortion services but also offers STI screenings, counselling for sexual assault and rape survivors, and family planning and contraceptive services.

So there are concerns that protesters who want to specifically target women going inside for an abortion are intimidating other patients as well.

Political and professional support for the buffer zones

The new buffer zone bill is in the final phases of public consultation this week, and has already attracted more than 5,000 comments "overwhelmingly supportive of the bill" Mackay told Euronews.

There has been exceptionally broad support for the initiative inside Scotland's parliament, bringing together unlikely political allies to back Mackay's proposal.

There are hopes too that any political opposition will be limited to single figures when the bill comes to a vote in Holyrood. 

"It's really now not about winning the issue, which I think is supported in most parts of progressive Scottish society. The issue is already settled, and it is now about how we make the bill robust," explained Mackay.

Lawmakers and campaigners have been working with groups who could potentially be impacted by a no-protest zone, including Scottish trade unions and the local authority umbrella group, to ensure their rights are not infringed upon - for example not criminalising a right to have a picket line outside a building in case of industrial action.

The British Medical Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners, youth councils and city councils in Glasgow and Aberdeen have come out strongly in favour of the bill.

There's also widespread support among the Scottish public for introducing buffer zones, a move supported by 68% of Scots, while just 8% opposed it, according to a recent poll.

Nicola Sturgeon's 'summits' on abortion access

At the end of June Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon held a summit on abortion care in Scotland, and said that "no one should be impeded from seeking the services they are entitled to."

The meeting came just days after the US Supreme Court overturned the Roe v Wade ruling which ended a constitutional right to abortion in America, a move Sturgeon called "catastrophic and horrific" and "one of the darkest days for women's rights in my lifetime".

Another summit at the end of August is expected to look at ways local councils can do more to protect women who go into sexual health clinics, before any buffer zone law comes into effect.

“The Scottish Government is committed to introducing buffer zones as quickly as is practicable. Women must be able to access abortion services without fear of harassment or intimidation in any way," a spokesperson told Euronews.

“We have committed to convene further discussions with local government on how best to make progress to protect patient rights and look at using bylaws to establish buffer zones."

Who are the anti-abortion protesters?

While it's not the case that every clinic in Scotland is targeted by anti-abortion activists, a number of clinics like Sandyford in Glasgow have become focal points for protesters and there is increasing concern about the "Americanisation" of their activities.

The Texas-based 40 Days for Life organisation already has plans for a weeks-long protest outside a clinic in the Scottish capital Edinburgh in September, as the group's president Shawn Carney said this weekend that Scotland was "dying to live in the stone ages of biology, science, and free speech".

"It is why the pro-life movement is winning at home and abroad," he wrote on Twitter.

Carney's organisation works with an evangelical law firm called ADF International whose London spokesperson Lois McLatchie has been interviewed by Scottish media saying the buffer zones "ban legitimate offers of help and silent prayer."

"Women have the right to hear about these options at the point of need and it is patronising of the government saying women don't want to hear this," McLatchie told BBC Scotland in a recent interview.

ADF boasts that they "engage at the highest levels of law and governance" at the European Union, Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights, but the Southern Poverty Law Centre which monitors extremism in the USA, has branded ADF as a "hate group" and documented a laundry list of times ADF has campaigned against rights for sexual and gender minorities.

"What we've seen at Sandyford shows it is not silent prayer," said MSP Gillian Mackay. "And we've seen up to a hundred people outside of Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow. It's intimidation."

Grace Brownie from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children SPUC in Scotland disagrees with this, and says most "pro-life" vigils are "passive and peaceful in nature" and buffer zones are therefore not needed.

"I don't think there is a sense of harassment or intimidation outside clinics or facilities. I live in Glasgow very close to the hospital where a pro-life vigil takes place, and I think there's a lot of misrepresentation what the vigil looks like and what the vigil is there to do," she tells Euronews.

SPUC wants their actions, which they frame as a "vigil" to be seen differently to some of the more noisy and radical "protests" which have taken place.

"What we do is not a protest, it's a peaceful community-based vigil to offer support to vulnerable women, and offer a last lifeline of support."

"Abortion coercion is a problem in Scotland," she adds, and claims women tell her organisation that they are "being pressured into having an abortion and not able to make an informed choice."

SPUC believes that Scottish authorities already have sufficient laws in place to deal with harassment and intimidation - something most politicians, medical groups and the majority of the Scottish public disagree with.