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Comment: This is not a debate about the ethics of abortion but a debate about access to healthcare

Comment: This is not a debate about the ethics of abortion but a debate about access to healthcare

In 2019, I experienced anti-abortion harassment first-hand when attending an abortion appointment after finding out I was pregnant during my third year of university. For me, choosing to have an abortion was an easy decision. I didn’t feel shame or sadness, but having to run the gauntlet past these protestors brought feelings of anger to the surface which have lingered in the years following. 

Since co-founding the Back Off Scotland campaign in late 2020, we have collected hundreds of stories from patients and clinicians about the distress that these groups have caused. We have also garnered almost 8,000 signatures of support for a petition to implement nationwide legislation, gained cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament, and reached all corners of the country in the press. However, we are still to see greater protection around abortion clinics.

Our campaign calls for 150-metre ‘buffer zones’ – areas in which you cannot legally protest in –to be implemented outside of any hospital in Scotland that provides abortion services. In my –and I’m sure many others' – ideal world, nobody would harass a woman when she is exercising her right to choose. Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world and as I result I see no other options aside from buffer zones to ensure that abortion services remain accessible to all. 

In a month that saw the buffer zone debate heat up in Holyrood following the US Supreme Court Roe v. Wade leak, and a surge in anti-choice harassment outside healthcare facilities in Glasgow, the pressure building on the Scottish Government has – perhaps surprisingly – paved the way to inaction.

The government are now sitting back and allowing a first-term, back-bench MSP to do all of the legwork in producing a Member’s Bill to legislate on something that should have been at the top of their priority list. It is not good enough.

On the surface, buffer zones appear to be generally supported, and we are continually reminded of this by the government. In my experience, this could not be further from the truth. Last September, I met with women’s health minister Maree Todd to discuss my experience of anti-abortion harassment and to persuade her to act and implement buffer zones. 

Maree and her team were quick to reassure us of their disapproval of the harassment, and even quicker to shift the burden of buffer zone implementation to chronically underfunded local authorities – thus, creating a postcode lottery of access. 

Every time Maree (admittedly, only a handful) has spoken on buffer zones in the Scottish Parliament, she has reiterated her opposition to the protests and promises that they are working with local councils on this.

However, bar the introduction of a ministerial working group on buffer zones that has only met three times in the past year, it’s safe to say the government have taken a comfortable back seat on this. 

Various factors may make up the reasoning behind the Scottish Government’s inaction on this matter, but I would propose that it reflects Scotland’s wider attitude towards reproductive care.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, when asked about buffer zones in parliament, assured the public of her strong opposition to clinic harassment. Seconds later, however, SNP MSP John Mason was called forward to share his views on the issue. This came less than a week after Mason made public comment that clinics are ‘urging’ users to have abortions, proving his lack of basic understanding of reproductive care in Scotland. 

When I had an abortion, clinicians talked through my options extensively, making sure that this was my choice to make, not anyone else’s. The very notion that someone this ill-informed on a topic now has his statements recorded in the Scottish Parliament’s official record reflects the wider problem of abortion and reproductive rights discourse.

There are not ‘two sides’ to this debate, because this is not a debate about the ethics of abortion but a debate about access to healthcare. The idea that we can’t discuss buffer zones without the concept of morality creeping in speaks loudly of the position Scotland finds itself in in terms of reproductive rights.

Abortion sits in the criminal justice system in Scotland, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the buffer zone debate has been treated differently from other healthcare-related debates.

Gillian Mackay’s Member’s Bill was launched last week, and this should be celebrated and commended. However, as someone who knows all too well how this harassment can affect patients, I am disappointed in the Scottish Government’s lack of action in the face of an issue that has been going on in Scotland since the 1990s. 

Every time a protestor pickets a hospital, service users and staff are put at risk. The government are complicit in this, and it is an abdication of their duty of care. Anti-choice harassment is just the tip of the iceberg in barriers to reproductive care in Scotland, but it is one that we have the chance to act courageously on.

Alice Murray is a member of Back Off Scotland, a group campaigning for buffer zones around clinics that provide abortion services.

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