Back Off Scotland: fighting for abortion rights
“While walking with my baby in the pram, I passed one protester standing on the pavement outside the centre. She tried to hand me a leaflet which clearly had anti-abortion messaging… I spoke to her about what she was doing… She looked into my baby’s pram and said ‘but there’s a reason you didn’t want to murder your own baby’. I walked away and she shouted after me: ‘You are a hypocrite. You knew she was a baby and you knew she was in your womb. Would you kill her too?’”
In a turn of events that makes Scotland sound straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale, the testimony above is anything but fantasy. Collected by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), it refers to events that occurred in February 2020 at the Chalmers Sexual Health Centre in Edinburgh.
In recent years, women and pregnant people accessing abortion in Scotland have been faced with a regular anti-choice presence outside clinics. According to BPAS, protesters are reported to be “chanting, praying loudly, showing photos of foetuses, giving out leaflets, and approaching women and couples entering the clinics.” In some cases, they purportedly ventured as far as telling visitors that “dead embryos go into vaccines”, and calling women “murderers”.
Clinic protests are a form of anti-abortion action whose aim is deterring or directly preventing patients from accessing abortion care. In Scotland, their activities date back to 1999, when the group Precious Life Scotland started protesting outside Brook Advisory clinics with large, explicit images of aborted foetuses.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service reports that, since the beginning of 2017, seven are the hospitals and clinics in Scotland that have been targeted – Aberdeen Maternity Hospital, Edinburgh’s Chalmers Centre, Dundee’s Ninewells Hospital, Glasgow Royal Infirmary, Larbert’s Forth Valley Royal Hospital, Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Glasgow, and the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.
Most of these clinic protests appear to be organised by the Texas-founded group 40 Days for Life, which, for the past six years, has been holding two sets of 40-day protests a year – one during Lent, and one in the autumn. During these demonstrations, protesters stand with placards and leaflets and pray outside hospitals every day. Other protests tend to be organised by local anti-choice groups and by the international group Helpers of God’s Precious Infants.
One of their targets, the Chalmers Sexual Health Centre, is located in close proximity to Edinburgh University. For this reason, the so-called “prayer vigils” caught the attention of several students who, determined to put an end to this harassment, founded Back Off Scotland, a campaign calling for the introduction of 150-metre buffer zones outside hospitals and abortion clinics in Edinburgh.
“The campaign started last October when anti-choice protesters returned to the entrance of Chalmers Centre in Edinburgh,” said Lucy Grieve, co-founder of the campaign. “We were shocked that this was still happening, especially in the midst of what was basically a second lockdown.”
Coordinated by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Back Off is supported by a coalition of organisations including the British Medical Association, the Humanist Society Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, and grassroots campaigns like Back Off Chalmers.
Inspired by similar initiatives in England, Back Off started as a local campaign to create change in Edinburgh, however, it then expanded into a national campaign. “In February, Edinburgh City Council ruled in favour of enacting buffer zones around clinics that provide abortion services,” Grieve told Bella Caledonia. “At the same time, we were trying to launch a similar campaign in Glasgow but Glasgow Council came back to say that they didn’t have the powers to do this themselves, so we decided we needed a national approach to make change happen.”
Buffer zones are already a reality in various countries, such as Canada, Australia, and in some areas of the United States. They are perimeters of various sizes which are usually introduced around facilities providing abortion services. In these areas, protests and other anti-choice displays are not allowed in order to protect patients and employees from threats and harassment.
Anti-choice groups have contested the campaign, claiming that their activities are in support of women, not against their rights. Interviewed by the BBC, Margaret Akers, from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children Scotland, said: “We are making sure people receive counselling, material support and making sure this narrative of choice is a real one.”
She added: “We find in our work that so many women report feeling that they have no choice, so what can we do to open that up and provide real options.” Grieve, however, disagrees. “[Pro-life groups] argue that they’re providing counsel but we don’t need people in the street that are not qualified,” she said. “They’re not abortion providers, their counsel not is needed, support is already offered within abortion clinics.”
She stressed that the Back Off Scotland campaign “is not about whether we’re pro-abortion or pro-life. It’s just got to do with accessing sexual reproductive healthcare safely and without any barriers.” She added: “If you’ve got an issue with the law, go and protest at Parliament. It’s just not appropriate to be protesting where someone is receiving medical care for something so personal.”
In the recent Scottish elections, Back Off Scotland was successful in lobbying with the Scottish Government and a pledge to introduce buffer zones was included in the manifestos of the SNP, Labour and Lib Dems. They also achieved a verbal agreement with the Greens. “We are on the agenda but we just need to make sure that a national legislative framework is provided and we don’t run the risk of targeting just specific areas,” said Grieve.
Campaigners believe the legislation is particularly needed not only to address protests outside abortion clinics but also to strongly re-affirm Scotland’s stance on reproductive health. In fact, “prayer vigils” are not the only anti-choice activity present in the country.
“We get a lot of reports of sporadic activity by different groups,” Grieve added. “For example, there was a political party that was projecting images onto Chalmers Street of foetuses and children.” Grieve refers to events dating back to March 2021, when images of a foetus with slogans like “please let me be born” and “unborn lives matter” were projected onto the walls of Edinburgh’s Chalmers Centre.
“This censorship is detrimental because platforms like #Facebook have the power to supplement insufficient sex education, and prepare individuals for complex conversations surrounding topics like consent, sexual assault, healthy relationships, and more! HOWEVER when these words (like “abortion”) are treated as explicit, it contributes to societal shame and stigma.
Abortion is healthcare. It’s not a dirty word, but rather the name of a medical procedure.“
In 2020, during the COVID pandemic, the second-highest number of terminations and the highest termination rate were recorded in Scotland since the 1991 Regulations were introduced: 13,815 terminations (13.4 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44).
As women in Scotland struggle with the effects the pandemic has had on their lives and abortion rights are under attack worldwide, from Poland to the US, Scotland has the chance of sending a strong message about its stance on reproductive health. No matter one’s religious or moral beliefs, abortion is a right by law and, as such, it should be easy to access without any barriers or stigma.