2023 will likely be the year Green MSP Gillian Mackay’s “Buffer Zones” Bill comes into effect in Scotland. The law would establish a 150m radius “safe access zone” around Scottish abortion clinics, protecting a legal right extant since 1967.
The impetus for this law lies in a US-based “charity” — 40 Days for Life — who have staged “vigils” at clinics and sexual health centres across the country. While there has always been opposition to abortion in Scotland, mostly from its Presbyterian and Catholic churches, it was not until the US group landed that the protests became personal.
In recent years, Scottish women seeking NHS healthcare have faced growing abuse and misinformation from anti-choice activists. One disabled woman in Edinburgh suffered an asthma attack last year as she went for a routine appointment; she was unable to park in a blue bay due to protestors using it as a drop-off zone.
But let’s be clear: 40 Days for Life is not the traditional, “grassroots campaign” it presents itself as, nor a particularly “moralising” mission. As it has spread from Texas to 64 countries worldwide — including Scotland — we might consider it for what it really is: a transnational pyramid scheme, and a blatant example of neo-colonial dynamics.
Delve into the company’s IRS reports and you’ll see why. In the fiscal year ending December 2020, 40 Days for Life’s net assets were worth $8.3m. The company, whose “charitable status” makes it largely exempt from taxation, turned over $3m in net income.
Its CEO, Houston-native Shawn Carney, receives an annual “compensation” of around $230,000 for his “charity work”. His LinkedIn boasts his capitalist credentials as a “CEO with a demonstrated history of aggressive growth in non-profit organisation management.” 40 Days for Life is only one of Carney’s money-makers, alongside speaking tours and bestselling Christian literature, so it’s fair to assume he isn’t on the breadline.
The market 40 Days for Life appeals to, Christian evangelicals, is relatively new. It emerged in the 1960s thanks to US media magnate, homophobe, and anti-feminist Billy Graham, and found its selling point with the now-overturned Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. White US Americans at a loss for meaning or spiritual direction could now buy it: a packageable product, as seen on TV.
It’s this product 40 Days for Life has imported to Scotland and is now selling. In return for their time and money, customers can gain a sense of purpose—and perhaps an outlet for any deep-seated resentment. As part of an angry crowd, they’re unlikely to face retaliation from the lone women they prey on. And of course, for 40 Days for Life, they serve the key function of brand ambassadors.
The notion of “spreading the cause” deepens activists’ sense of purpose but also the pyramid. Profits continue to flow upwards and across the Atlantic. The company’s choice of marketplace, public streets outside hospitals, to hijack a controversial moral debate creates maximum publicity. Even if 40 Days for Life is kicked out of a country, the noise they create in leaving attracts more customers elsewhere. In terms of Shawn Carney’s wallet, it’s genius.
Unfortunately, creating noise is exactly their plan for MSP Mackay’s Bill. Carney plans to sue the Scottish Government (“It’ll be easy!”) on freedom of speech grounds. However, as Gillian Mackay rightly pointed out, 40 Days for Life is welcome to express themselves outside parliament, where abortion legislation is made, or any other public space for that matter.
But Carney is not fighting for freedom of speech; he’s fighting for the best venue to sell his product. As the current Scottish Government would never repeal abortion laws, nor would most Scottish citizens want them to, protesting outside Holyrood would be futile from a marketing perspective. The quality of customers’ products — i.e., their sense of a meaningful cause, an end goal — would disappear.
We can think of Carney’s decision to sue, therefore, as an investor-state dispute settlement — or, more accurately, neo-colonialism in practice. When a multi-million-dollar TNC uses instruments of international capital to sway a country’s politics, that is undoubtedly colonialist.
Thankfully, 40 Days for Life’s case will likely fail in court, as precedents in England have proved. The bigger picture, however, is not as pretty. One only has to look across the Atlantic to see the effects of corpocratic morality. For many, hate is profitable.
Hence, it’s up to us in Scotland to carry on the fight, with love in our hearts and without cash in hand. Whatever one’s stance on abortion, we cannot let private companies infringe on women’s rights to safe public space—the same safety society guarantees men—nor the right to free and universal healthcare. Above all, we cannot let money control our nascent democracy, as a devolved Scotland leads the way in social justice.
To quote a placard from a 1981 NAC protest, when abortion legislation was still up for debate in Scotland, “We won’t let anyone choose for us: our bodies, our choice.”
“File:Debating chamber, Scottish Parliament (31-05-2006).jpg” by User:pschemp is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.