Have your say on Bill to ensure safe access to abortion clinics

Green MSP Gillian Mackay is running a public consultation on her Private Member’s Bill which would implement 150m “buffer zones” around sexual health clinics so that anyone accessing abortion services is not subject to intimidation and distress from pro-life groups holding up upsetting images and shouting at them.

This Bill has cross-party backing and is likely to pass. Scottish Lib Dem Leader Alex Cole-Hamilton has voiced strong support.

You don’t have to live in Scotland to respond to this consultation. Evidence of people’s experience from across the whole of the UK, or even internationally, is more than welcome.

Last night Engender, one of Scotland’s main feminist organisations, and Back Off Scotland, the campaign for buffer zones, held a joint meeting to discuss the consultation.

Catherine Murphy, Engender’s new Executive Director who has years of experience fighting for sexual and reproductive rights, set the scene. She warned of anti gender equality actors spending hundreds of millions of pounds across Europe to undermine women’s rights to, amongst other things, sexual and reproductive healthcare.

She described the US overturning Roe vs Wade as a “horrendous violation of rights”

There was, however, hope with increasing global momentum for change. Decriminalisation of abortion in Argentina had led to change in Mexico and Colombia.

She talked about the need for the debate on abortion to continue in a progressive way in Scotland. The more marginalised people are, the greater difficulty they tend to have in accessing abortion services.

She said that there still remains no legal right for a woman to end a pregnancy that she does not wish to continue. This has to be established by not one but two doctors. There are also examples of women being investigated by police on suspicion of carrying out illegal abortions if they have miscarriages or stillbirths. We need to work towards total decriminalisation.

Lucy Grieve from Back Off Scotland was next to speak. She and a friend set up the campaign when they were students after she witnessed pro lifers gathering outside an Edinburgh sexual health clinic during lockdown.

She pointed out that what they were doing was not a protest. It was  targeted harassment of individuals aimed at shaming patients and clinic staff. These protests are growing in size and number and she said that the need for action to stop them had never been greater.

Gillian Mackay MSP said that she had introduced the Bill because there was a clear need for harassment-free healthcare.

She urged people to complete the consultation, which you can do here, by 11th August. She drew attention to a question on sustainability, which she said was not her being ultra Green but a standard thing in all Members’ Bills consultation. Back Off Scotland and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service have produced a very helpful guide to the consultation which you might find useful.

She expressed her gratitude that the Scottish Government now support the bill as do MSPs from  every other party. She was hopeful that she had the numbers to get it through and was relieved that we won’t see polarisation on party political lines on this.

The Lib Dems have policy in favour of buffer zones both at federal and Scottish levels. I winged a Conference speech for the very first time on this issue back in 2018. I hadn’t put in a card to speak and then someone likened protesting outside abortion clinics to protesting against the Iraq War. I saw red. As it was the first morning of Conference, they were short on speakers anyway, so I hastily filled in a card and had only a few minutes to work out what to say. Normally I would have my whole speech with me in double spacing and enormous print. Thankfully adrenaline and passion kept me going. I made the point that the right to peaceful protest was an essential part of a liberal society. However, bullying and harassing people accessing healthcare is as far from liberal as you can get and that we  should stand up against that sort of behaviour.  You can see the whole thing here, stutters and all.

In that debate, I remember one speaker talking about her horrendously traumatic experience of having to terminate a pregnancy for medical reasons. She was overcome with emotion as she spoke of how much she had wanted to have a child and of the cruel circumstances which had led her to this situation. She talked about how she still grieved. She said that she couldn’t imagine how awful it would have been if she’d had to run the gauntlet of a shouting mob as she entered or left the hospital.

If people want to protest for a reduction in abortion rights, they are free to do so. But they should direct their efforts at the people who actually make the laws, not people seeking medical care at a difficult point in their lives.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Brad Barrows 26th Jul '22 - 3:08pm

    An interestingly argued piece that got me thinking, especially about “if people want to protest…they should direct their efforts at the people who actually make the laws..”
    I understand that patients and medical staff need protection from protesters but should the principle of protest-free buffer zones be extended beyond abortion locations? For example, should scientists who do experiments on animals be afforded the same protections as medical workers who are just doing their jobs? Once the decision to establish protest free zones has been taken – which I’m sure it will – we have to guard against further, gradual extensions to this form of limitation of the right to peaceful assembly and protest.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th Jul '22 - 3:28pm

    A well argued and articulated piece Caron, I think.

    I believe in legal abortion. But I also believe it must be limited and regulated for reasons of health and safety. My fear is that the decriminalisation suggested, would reduce the necessary safeguards.

    The piece in your link refers to women who took unsafe pills, and some might go further, to avoid the two medical personel aspect required as of now. Surely, as with a wretched return to back street abortions, if abortion was illegal, something dangerous might happen if it were decriminalised.

    I would favour a reduction in weeks as viability develops, further and science improves, and our NHS, are able to do abortions earlier. I also think there are worries in allowing abortions, on grounds of gender or down syndrome. I cannot fathom how my support of the rights of these two is not understood as progressive, when it is for the rights of women to be, and disabled to be, human and alive.

    The buffer zone argument is a valid defence of confidentiality and privacy. But we ought to allow those who can support women through pregnancy, which some genuine anti abortion groups do, to at least be able to make services available and women aware.

    Ireland allows twelve weeks. So does France. There are groups in the US such as Democrats for Life, Feminists for Life. So to in the Eu. Why are we unable to have a sensible discussion here without insults or extreme attitudes.

  • Great speech, Caron.

  • Just want to draw everyojne’s attention to this. It’s worse than just Roe v Wade.

  • Whilst it might be tempting to chip away at liberties to limit very specific things that we particularly don’t like, the danger is that once a liberty has been withdrawn based on a special case, other special cases will be presented to withdraw the liberty further. Indeed the act of withdrawing a liberty at all has a highly devaluing effect on the liberty more broadly.

    When the Conservatives embrace the magic money tree and spending through borrowing, their ideological opponents are emboldened and not only propose to outdo them, but have a free pass to do so when in power. When Labour embrace privatisation and market forces in public services their ideological opponents are ready to outdo them with minimal push back from opponents.

    So when Liberals embrace authoritarianism through censorship or suppression of freedom or speech and assembly, this emboldens our ideological opponents who see not only a weakness in our values but also a lack of self-belief in our own values

    The case for buffer zones is weak because it can easily be applied to other circumstances. Picket lines can be framed as “bullying, harassment and intimidation” (indeed they are by authoritarian who want laws to do away with them). In addition to Brad’s example, laws limiting protest near Parliament are (regrettably) in place to apparently protect MPs and staff from “bullying, harassment and intimidation” and the Lib Dems’ own Brexit Man has fallen foul of this authoritarian restriction to freedom of speech and assembly.

  • @Lorenzo Cherin – I would favour a reduction in weeks as viability develops, further and science improves, and our NHS, are able to do abortions earlier.

    To achieve that without unnecessarily punishing the woman seeking a termination, we need to make access to legal abortion services swift, with no room for bureaucratic delays and make it a criminal offence to protest outside of and harassing people accessing and working at such clinical services.

  • Brad Barrows 30th Jul '22 - 10:33am

    “…and make it a criminal offence to protest…”
    I never thought I would read such words on a Liberal Democrat forum. The intention may be to confine such criminalisation of protest to small geographical areas, but it is still a very significant step.

  • @Brad – Yes, the problem is that these “protests” by Pro-Life groups (along with the misleading “advice” centres they advertise on the Internet) aren’t really protests, but deliberate actions calculated to intimidate vulnerable women.

  • Andrew Tampion 31st Jul '22 - 11:36am

    I agree with James Pugh and Brad Barrows that this proposes restrictions on free speech and rights of assembly that neeed to be considered carefully and not just waved through because of beiing in favour of abortion rights. I listened to the Sunday programme on BBC Radio 4 today and Gillian Mackay was asked whether harassment, as outlawed in the proposeed Bill would include people praying outside of sexual health clinics and she agreed that it might.
    I also agree with Brad that it is worrying that people posting on a liberal site are so keen on criminalising protest.
    Moreover as the consultation itself makes clear there are several laws in Scotland that already prohibit or restrict harassment. If these aren’t working then it would be better to review these laws rather than impose restrictions on peoples freedom of speech and assembly.

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