Since October 2020, the Back Off Scotland campaign group has been on the front line of counter-protests against pro-life demonstrators who have gathered outside abortion clinics in Edinburgh, and more widely across Scotland.
On 4 November, the Scottish parliament debated a motion from Green MSP Gillian Mackay in favour of implementing so-called buffer zones around sexual health clinics.
The proposals would see a 150-metre protest-free area imposed around sites in Scotland including Edinburgh’s Chalmers Sexual Health Centre; the aim of which would be to prevent intimidating behaviour of the type seen directed towards people entering the clinics.
The new legislation was rejected by the Scottish government. In the wake of last week’s debate, The Student spoke with Lucy Grieve, co-founder and director of Back Off Scotland.
The state of the campaign
“Everything apart from the government’s response was positive”, Lucy said of the parliamentary debate. In her view, a cross-party recognition of the seriousness of this issue has emerged, with many Members agreeing on the need to enable those who make such decisions feel safe.
Asked about why the government rejected the motion, Lucy suggested the minister for women’s health, Maree Todd (SNP), was simply taking orders from higher up and that she personally supports implementing buffer zones.
Back Off Scotland underlined that the main cause for caution from the government is because they see the rule proposals to be “disproportionate” and that they could encroach on the freedom to protest. Indeed, Todd emphasised that the rights of pro-life protestors must be considered, regardless of their emotional impact on those seeking sexual health assistance.
Reflecting on this, Lucy suspects that this move by the government is a legal, rather than moral, one.
“I think they have been given questionable advice by their lawyers” with ministers fearing that any new law that restricted protest would be struck down for contravening the European Convention on Human Rights’ freedom of speech provisions.
The UK remains bound by the ECHR, as it is distinct from the European Union.
Lucy and her colleagues remain unconvinced by this legal stance. She emphasised that multiple court cases, including one involving an abortion clinic in Ealing, London, have found buffer zones to be an “appropriate legal device” in ensuring safe and comfortable access to necessary health services.
The zones, Lucy goes on, would not end or threaten freedom of speech, but simply move protests away from critical site entrances.
“It would create a balance of rights”, where protestors are allowed to continue, and those seeking abortions are able to do so without fear or shame.
Whilst the motion was rejected by the government, the Greens’ Gillian Mackay is preparing to bring forward a members’ bill that would see the matter discussed further in the near future.
Who is protesting?
Edinburgh’s Chalmers Sexual Health Clinic has been the focal point for controversial pro-life campaigning in recent months, and Back Off Scotland was created as a counter movement to the protests at this specific clinic.
The protests are highly organised, coordinated in large part by a group called 40 Days for Life, who claim to be initiating “the beginning of the end of abortion.”
Originating in Texas in 2004, the international movement has grown to become the largest of its kind.
The group’s messages are rooted in religion, encouraging their supporters to “pray for an end to abortion in your community.” During each day of the twice-annual campaign (during Lent and autumn), the organisation’s CEO sends emails to its supporters detailing anecdotes of protestors persuading women to “choose life” and head to hospital pregnancy wards, rather than enter abortion clinics.
Disturbing to many pro-choice advocates is the imagery and language used by the group: the website has a real-time tally of how many ‘lives’ have been ‘saved’ by their work and how many abortion clinics they have helped to close down.
Member communications seen by The Student show images of medical waste vehicles outside clinics, to the disgust of 40 Days protestors. One particular email describes a deacon from California, who supposedly attends a clinic protest at the same time every week when the truck arrives, as “this is the only opportunity we have to bless these babies.”
Truly international is their reach, the 40 Days for Life organisation now has affiliate branches across the US, as well as in England, Nigeria and Argentina, among other countries.
What happens at Chalmers?
40 Days for Life, including their Edinburgh branch, insist their action involves ‘vigils’, rather than protest or intimidation.
Dismissing this as an attempt to excuse the inexcusable, Lucy – from Back Off Scotland – criticises the group, saying that regardless of their motivation, “it’s hostile to be prayed at. It’s totally inappropriate.”
Chalmers has become the centre of Scotland’s anti-abortion movement, with the group recently boosted by John Mason, an SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament, joining a ‘vigil’ in Edinburgh.
Ms Grieve called his presence “shocking and deeply disturbing.”
Asked by The Student to recall stories of Edinburgh residents being targeted by 40 Days for Life protesters, Lucy tells of a 17-year-old girl who had been victim to sexual assault, being aggressively branded a “teenage murderer” outside Chalmers.
The group’s Edinburgh-specific Facebook page boasts how residents involved in a recent protest stopped a group of young boys who were making jokes about abortion.
By the end of the conversation, the group claims, the children were “reflecting on the truth that abortion is killing a human life,” emphasising their desire not only to end abortion through legislation, but to change public opinion also.
Responding to last Thursday’s parliamentary debate, Back Off Scotland said:
“Women’s Health Minister, Maree Todd, says there are no easy solutions when it comes to protecting women from intimidation and harassment when accessing an abortion. There is: enacting buffer zones.
“This is a disgraceful abdication of responsibility, but not surprising. The women’s health minister is paid by the taxpayer to champion women’s health. She is not doing that”
Campaigns outside Chalmers, and those at abortion clinics across the rest of Scotland, are likely to continue despite the most recent 40 Days for Life campaign ending. They are expected to hold another campaign next year.
Regardless, pro-choice pressure groups, including Back Off Scotland, intend to work alongside lawmakers to implement national buffer zones, in what they see as a an attempt to protect the physical and mental wellbeing of vulnerable individuals.
Image: A buffer zone sign in front of a Planned Parenthood sexual health clinic in the USA, via Flickr.