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.”

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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.

More recently, the campaign criticised Facebook, after the social media platform had allegedly suspended supporters accounts when they shared their national petition. In a post, they wrote:

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. 


Comments (21)

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  1. Alice says:

    When I was a young woman in Scotland I used to read tiny articles tucked away in newspapers about young women dying of infection after visiting back street abortionists. I went to convent school where any notions of sexual activity were totally non existent…..we were ignorant beyond measure. But the little articles horrified me. I did know that there was a male involvement in the process but somehow it was young women who were dying.

    It was a great day when the Abortion Act came in to law. I couldn’t see how supposedly Christian folk could allow the deaths of so many young women. The women were going to have an abortion no matter what the Christians said. These women needed medical support to prevent their death .

    It is the same situation today and women wishing an abortion have the the same right to safeguard their health as ever.

  2. Colin Robinson says:

    ‘Clinic protests are a form of anti-abortion action whose aim is deterring or directly preventing patients from accessing abortion care.’

    The whole point of a picket is to deter or direct prevent someone from doing something you don’t want them to do. To establish ‘buffer zones’ to facilitate those who would cross a picket line is surely to in effect ban picketing.

    1. You might want to reflect on whether its appropriate to dominate EVERY post. You might want to reflect on whether its appropriate to dominate this post.

      1. John Mooney says:

        The pub bore produces the usual ennui effect on every post in particular THIS post,pub bore ,foxtrot oscar!

    2. Iris Pase says:

      Hi Colin,

      I personally don’t see it as a ban on picketing per se, rather a ban on picketing on those specific premises. I haven’t added this to the article but these protests can trigger trauma not only in people who are accessing abortion care, but also, for instance, in patients who suffered from a miscarriage.

      As Grieve said, if anti-abortion groups wish to protest, there’s plenty of places where they could do it in a more sensitive way. The same goes with offering counsel. I can hardly see anyone objecting to religious counsel being provided to people who wish to receive it.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        Yes, I appreciate that, Iris; the stakes are extremely high on both sides. And I certainly appreciate the right of any woman to choose and be supported in the choice she makes. This is not an issue for me. Personal autonomy is everything.

        The issue I raised was about picketing as such. If it’s not justified in this case, why is it justified in other cases where the object is to deter or directly prevent someone from doing something you don’t want them to do?

        I don’t have an answer to this. I’ve no idea what criteria you could employ to differentiate ‘good’ picketing from ‘bad’ picketing. Maybe it goes back to the traditional question of liberty; when, if ever, are we justified in coercing others.

  3. Alastair McIver says:

    The correct term is “pro-life”, not “anti-choice”. The latter is a term of abuse. We don’t have to agree with each other to be respectful.

    1. Iris Pase says:

      Hi Alastair,

      Thank you for commenting. My choice of using “anti-choice” does not from a place of disrespect, rather one of clarity.

      You can see a similar decision was taken by the Guardian not to use “pro-life”:

      The term “pro-life” conveys a series of assumptions that I, for one, don’t wish to imply. Among others:
      1) That pro-life groups act to protect all lives;
      2) That embryos and foetuses are both forms of life.

      The reason why I use anti-choice is that these groups effectively campaign against abortion and, as a consequence, against women’s and pregnant people’s right to bodily self determination.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        Yes, both terms are examples of persuasive definition, which purports to describe the ‘true’ nature of a thing, but which actually stipulates only a particular understanding as universal.

        Both are instances of what logicians call the definist fallacy, which is most commonly deployed by us in emotionally charged discourse where our concern is to sway people to one side or another and to thereby create or alter the rights, duties, or crimes by which we socially regulate the lives of others in accordance with our own particular beliefs and feelings. They are manipulative, in other words; exercises in the will to power.

  4. Fay Kennedy says:

    This is happening in Australia with a conservative government dependent upon right wing parliamentarians taking full advantage of their position to promote an anti abortion agenda. It is a terrifying prospect for women who are too often the victims of anti human politics. I speak from personal experience and know first hand the trauma of the past when women were left to fend for themselves with rudimentary intervention their only choice. I wonder if we have made any progress in these matters.

  5. Jim Morris says:

    Abortion is not a medical procedure. Pregnancy is not an illness, so does not require medicine to cure or heal it. The medical process is to care for the mother, the baby almost always dies (some have survived). Life and parenthood begin at conception.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      But at what point should we ascribe moral status to that life, Jim? And why at that particular point? That’s the tricky question.

      1. Jim Morris says:

        Moral status? A young child can imitate bad example, e.g. the amount of foul language in tiktok. A young child can also instinctively sense and fear a threat, but is not responsible for protecting itself or defending itself. A yet to be born child is innocent, just like an infant or a toddler.

    2. Time, the Deer says:

      Sorry Jim, it’s just not any of your business. If a man can choose not to be a parent (as so many do, often well after this magical moment of conception that you think is so significant), so can a woman – unless you think squeezing out babies is all we’re for? Away and berate men about their lack of responsibility. I can assure you women don’t care for your opinion on our life choices.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        This is true, Time. But men like Jim are often advocating for what they take to be the fertilised egg, to which they ascribe a moral status distinct from that of the woman who produced the egg. The question is whether or not the ascription of such a status can be justified. We should press him for that justification.

      2. Jim Morris says:

        I deliberately used the word parenthood, not motherhood. Who benefits from the cosmic lack of responsibility of so many modern men, and why does this mean women must imitate them to be equal? 2020 saw 50 million legal abortions worldwide (WHO estimate), almost 1 million confirmed pregnancies terminated every week: every one will be a difficult case with their own special circumstances, but every one leaves a mother, a father and a dead child.

      3. E. G. says:

        At some point there must be such a “magical moment” when a person emerges from non-personality. The question is when. There are some decent arguments against fertilization being that moment, but there are no decent arguments for the delivery process transmuting impersonal human biomatter into a human person of inestimable moral worth.

        Men are entitled to express philosophical and legal opinions on the topic of abortion. Only one “side” sees the woman as the only person involved in the decision to abort. Owning a home doesn’t invalidate one’s views on the problem of homelessness, and not being a woman of child-bearing age doesn’t invalidate one’s views on fetal rights, the limits of bodily autonomy, or “magical moments” and the legal freedom to kill one’s offspring.

    3. C Reynolds says:

      “Abortion is not a medical procedure.”
      Actually it is – try performing one without a medical license you will be prosecuted for performing a medical procedure without a license under the law.

      “Pregnancy is not an illness, so does not require medicine to cure or heal it.”
      LOL oh, dear – you do understand there is an actual medical specialty devoted to it? Called F3 Obstetrics and as part of the Sexual Health, Reproductive groupings on SMR02.
      Ever heard of pre-eclampsia, gravida hyper emesis, gestational diabetes, etc? Ever looked into the rates of MMR in the UK (and not referring to the vaccine)?

      “The medical process is to care for the mother,”
      Yes the person who is an actual person.

      “the baby almost always dies (some have survived).”
      Oh dear, no, a baby (neonate) has been born ergo not subject to abortion. Please learn the difference.

      “Life and parenthood begin at conception.”
      Actually, over 70% of fertilised eggs fail to implant – life is a continuum, no one is obligated to gestate unless they CONSET to do so.

  6. David B says:

    Iris, thanks for sharing this. Given that buffer zones were in the SNP manifesto (+ Labour & LDs), what’s currently preventing this from becoming law? Is it a case of our elected representatives being told to stop sitting on their hands?

    1. Stephen Cowley says:

      I understood that there is a common law right in Scotland to assemble and express yourself . If we eliminate it here, we set a precedent to eliminate it elsewhere. Why should trade unionists be allowed to “harass and intimidate” workers near their place of work? Why should anti-war protesters be allowed to “harass and intimidate” the armed forces? Why should political activists be allowed to “harass and intimidate” elected politicians? (I put “harass and intimidate” in scare quotes as taken literally these are already illegal).

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