Scottish Liberal Democrats back abortion clinic exclusion zones and decriminalisation

When I first saw that a motion on decriminalising abortion had been put on the agenda for Scottish Conference, I was delighted, but unsure that it would pass. We’ve tended to shy away from what many people feel are issues of conscience, although the Scottish Party has form for leading the way on equal marriage before the 2010 election. The issue of abortion is an emotive one, though and was bound to provoke more controversy.

The motion was written and presented by Jess Insall, the 15 year old activist who persuaded us to adopt policy calling for gender neutral school uniforms 

Jess’s motion called for the Scottish Government to do five things

  • remove all criminal sanctions for receiving an abortion.
  • remove all criminal sanctions for appropriately registered and regulated medical professionals providing a safe abortion.
  • provide funding so that users of reproductive healthcare services are provided with enough specialist advice to make fully informed decisions.
  • enforce safe zones around abortion service providers so that those visiting can travel to them free of any harassment or pressure on their decision, and to make intimidation or harassment of abortion service users outside clinics, or on common transport routes to these services, illegal.
  • provide funding to enable abortion clinics to provide their services free of charge to service users regardless of country of nationality or residency.

It’s worth reading her entire proposing speech which was sensitive, authoritative and persuasive:

Conference, our world is changing. The 21st century has brought great new ideas, innovations, and inspirations. But now, more than ever, we know of the threats that new technology can create. The anonymous trolls of Twitter and Facebook spout misogyny, racism, and transphobia from every orifice. The corrupt practices of Cambridge Analytica are a real threat to our democracy, and the online purchase of illegal abortion pills is on a very worrying rise.

In 2013, just 5 doses of illegal abortifacients were seized being delivered to UK addresses, but this sharply increased to 180 doses in 2014. The rise continued, with 270 doses seized in 2015, and in 2016, the government seized 375 doses of unregulated, unreliable, illegal abortion medication. Despite the fact that self-induced abortion is punishable by life imprisonment, many women are driven to take this dangerous decision because current abortion legislation is outdated and ineffective. These women are not criminals worthy of life sentences, they are vulnerable individuals who have been let down by the system. This is only one of the many reasons we need to make abortion fair, legal, and free from judgement. We need to establish a real freedom of choice.

Leaving abortion in the criminal justice system is not fair. Unnecessary appointments are needed just to jump through legal hoops such as the requirement that two doctors authorise an abortion. These are mere inconveniences for women on higher incomes who have the time, money, and resources to attend them, and for women who have supportive partners or families. But for women on low incomes who can’t afford to miss work, can’t afford care costs for existing children or ill relatives, and can’t afford travel to and from clinics, it can realistically seem easier to seek dangerous illegal alternatives. This is also true for women trying to hide an abortion from unsupportive family, or victims of domestic violence who may well be carrying an unwanted pregnancy as a result of rape.

These vulnerable groups of women are even harder hit by the outrageous postcode lottery that Scottish abortion provision currently is. Although the legal late term limit on abortion is 24 weeks, providers in Scotland will normally only authorise abortion before 18-20 weeks, and some providers won’t authorise abortions as early as 16 weeks. This means approximately 200 Scottish women every single year have to travel to England just to access a legal abortion.

Scotland, that is unacceptable.

Our wonderful NHS is already stretched to breaking point, and the unnecessary criminalisation of abortion is wasting time, money, and resources that could be used to save lives. Doctors are apprehensive to specialise in abortion out of fear of prosecution simply for doing their job. Contrary to some beliefs,decriminalisation does not mean deregulation. Abortions will still be regulated to the exceptionally high standards that other medical procedures are, and we can trust our incredible NHS staff to maintain these standards.

There is also no evidence whatsoever to suggest that decriminalisation leads to increases in abortions. Countries such as Canada have already taken this step forward and removed abortion from criminal law without experiencing any increase in numbers. Here in Scotland, due partly to legislative error, there was no legal late term limit on abortions until 1990, and when said limit was introduced, it lead to no decrease in such procedures. Our current laws assume that just because a woman can legally have an abortion, she will. Conference, this is not the case. Abortion is not a decision that anyone takes lightly, and late term abortions even more so. Women only seek this procedure in extreme circumstances, and we need to ensure they are trusted and supported when making this incredibly difficult decision.

In this speech I do refer to women receiving abortions, because in the majority of cases it is. But abortion laws do apply to some non-binary and trans people, so where appropriate the motion has been written using gender neutral language.

That might seem like an insignificant point to raise, but it is crucial that abortion is provided completely without judgement. As with any medical treatment, the decision to have an abortion should be kept strictly between the doctor, the patient, and whoever the patient chooses to involve. The thoughtless protests that happen outside clinics must stop. At the very least they are a breach of patient confidentiality, with protesters often using fake body cameras and targeting individual women, and at worst they can be extremely distressing to women already going through a hard and personal journey. Evidence shows that these protests have no effect on a woman’s decision, but do cause considerable short term distress. Even if demonstrations are genuinely well meant, which some of them are, they are ineffective, irresponsible, and injurious.

If you want to change abortion laws, talk to lawmakers, talk to medical associations, or even talk to party conferences. If you want to decrease abortion rates, campaign for better sex education or volunteer to help keep young women in education. Capitalising on vulnerability is not fair. Of course freedom of speech is fundamental to a free society, but so is judgement-free access to medical care. This motion won’t stop people campaigning for change. All it will stop is protests that target individuals, rather than tackling the issue as a whole.

Conference, I know abortion is a hugely emotive issue, and I fully respect that, but we can’t let philosophy or ideology trump practicality. We need to treat it like trains, or taxes, or trade. Leaving abortion as a conscience issue sets it apart from other issues and suggests that somehow the personal views of politicians are more important than the lives of the electorate they serve. This motion isn’t about anyone’s personal opinion on abortion, it’s about recognising that every women should have the right to make her own personal decisions without the state intervening, regardless of whether or not they agree with her choices. We can tell our Parliamentarians how to vote on military strikes, surely women’s healthcare isn’t a more contentious issue than that?

I love this party because we are the party of pragmatists dreaming of a fairer, freer future. I know that so many people in this room are selfless and strong enough to put the lives of others before your own personal beliefs. And conference, I find that pretty damn inspirational.

So please, Whether you’re pro choice, pro life, both or neither, stand up for what’s right, and vote in favour of this motion.


There were two other speeches in the debate that were crucial to the motion passing.

Former candidate Katy Gordon movingly talked about her own experience. Some years ago, she had an abortion for medical reasons, which was hugely distressing for her and led to her being off work for over 3 months:

I can remember every minute of it as clear as if it were yesterday.

The grief was huge, the decision was not an easy option.

I cannot begin to imagine how much worse my mental health would have been if I had had to run the gauntlet of angry protesters shoving pictures of foetuses in my face and shouting at me.

I am so grateful to her for having the courage to share her experience with us so that people could understand what it is like to go through it.


Her powerful speech won an award for being the best of the Conference.

The other critical speech came from Andrew Nisbet from Helensburgh. He had initially been minded to call for a reference back but after discussions with supporters of the motion had decided to support it.

In the main it was a thoughtful and illuminating debate. Many people had no idea that abortion was still a crime punishable by life imprisonment unless the exact provisions of the Abortion Act 1967 were followed. As Jess said, decriminalisation was not deregulation and would make it easier for vulnerable women to access the help that they need.

I thought it would take two goes to get this through and I’m really pleased that the Scottish Liberal Democrats can now bring this policy into the debate as powers are now devolved to the Scottish Government to change abortion law.

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

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Apr '18 - 5:21pm

    A big mistake to have policies on conscience matters.

    How do people who cannot support it, do so?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Apr '18 - 6:37pm

    I don’t think so. For some people these are issues of conscience, for others issues of key liberal principle. I don’t agree with every policy the party has and I don’t expect anyone else to. However, I think it is important that we lead the way and have some fair and liberal policies in this area and areas like equal marriage.

  • Lorenzo – without policies on conscience matters we could never change the law on conscience matters. Slavery was once a “conscience matter”, and some people opposed it’s abolition.

    People who can’t support it, don’t. Such is life, and politics……

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Apr '18 - 10:40pm

    I feel Caron and Nick you are both eloquent and definite, both good qualities,though the second a little too obvious for my liking , when nuance and moderation could be welcome, and thus missing the point.

    A Liberal position is not one thing only on an issue whee there are Liberal arguments for various stances. So for instance, protection of the vulnerable life incubating is a Liberal position.

    Stopping the ending of life based on gender is a Liberal position and one for the rights of the women of tomorrow to have life! This motion makes it easier to end life based on hideous objections to having a girl !

    The conscience aspect is very much a concern and it is an end to the tradition of the individual decision not by majority but by principle only.

    You can find an msp to support a bill to deal with these aspects you want changed.He or she can persuade others based on their non party view to vote it through.

    I cannot find a party to support easily now in Scotland.

    There is no Liberal argument for slavery.

    There are Liberal arguments for saving the potential lives of children to be, and for the individual parliamentary decision making we value or did.

  • A most enlightening article and well done to Scottish Conference on passing the motion as I support the actions of Ealing Council.

  • the online purchase of illegal abortion pills is on a very worrying rise.
    I wasn’t previously aware of this. However, from the article, I agree it is worrying because it is indicative that the established system is failing some women.
    Whilst the article was from a Scottish perspective, I suspect the systems elsewhere in the UK have similar issues.

  • Are exclusion zones around abortion clinics liberal? What about when a visiting politician asks for such an exclusion zone around his/her planned public appearance to avoid any harassment ? What about when a shop selling something “controversial” (such as fur, sweatshop produced garments, pornography or Israeli produce) asks for such an exclusion zone to avoid harassment of its staff and customers? Where does this limit on freedom to assemble, protest and express oneself end?

  • Not Scottish, but personally I could support all of the above if it was combined with a reduction of the age limit to somewhere around 12-16 weeks.

    There is a massive difference between a baby and a mere embryo which is indistinguishable from an embryo of other species except in terms of its potential. Having being to a 3D ultrasound of my own daughter at 19 weeks – by pressing on the side of the belly the doctor was able to demonstrate that my daughter already had the suckling reflex and was to all intents and purposes a baby with a bit of growing left to do – my own view is that 24 weeks is too late to set as the starting point of babyhood.

    The trouble is that in trying to protect babies of that age one finds oneself standing next to people who would also like to extend protection to newly fertilized embryos, and even sperm and eggs.

    IMHO the liberal approach to this is to setting out the values as
    1. Killing is wrong.
    2. Absent any factors such as killing being wrong, one can choose to have whatever medical procedures one wants performed on one’s own body.

    – so one needs to look at evidence to determine the cutoff of when 1. starts to apply and legalise all the rest.

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