Pro-life prayer outside an abortion clinic. Credit: Diocese of Saginaw.
Pro-choice activists are calling on the Scottish government to ban prayer and public discussion of abortion in the vicinity of the country’s abortion clinics.
“We think that it’s time that the Scottish Government legitimise buffer zones around clinics providing abortion services Scotland-wide,” said Ella Cheney, founder of Back Off Scotland, according to the Edinburgh daily The Scotsman.
“Anti-choice activity outside clinics is incoherent with our right to confidentially access essential medical services – with our right to choose,” she added.
Cheney said that “I have accessed sexual health services and witnessed these groups outside praying. It’s intimidating and made me feel uncomfortable. People have a right to their views but shouldn’t be talking to women about them at the point they are trying to access services.”
Back Off Scotland began with a petition asking Edinburgh to impose a buffer zone preventing pro-life gathering or speech within 150 meters (490 feet) of the Chalmers Sexual Health Centre.
Rachael Clarke of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service said that “The current law in Scotland just isn’t sufficient. These groups aren’t violent, but they target individual women and cause them immense distress.”
She said pro-life groups and persons “have every right to hold their opinion. They have every right to campaign, to contact their MSPs, and to share their beliefs. They don’t have a right to infringe women’s privacy and impact their emotional and mental wellbeing at the hospital gate.”
Back Off Scotland’s head of policy, Lucy Grieve, said that “As it stands, the Scottish Government believes that the police already have powers to address the issues of disorder that are potentially raised by clinic protests,” but she maintains “that more robust measures need to be considered.”
The group is preparing to launch a petition seeking a buffer zone around Glasgow abortion clinics as well.
Back Off Scotland is supported by BPAS and the Humanist Society Scotland.
Proposals for buffer zones around abortion clinics throughout England and Wales were rejected as disproportionate by the then-British Home Secretary in September 2018, after finding that most abortion protests are peaceful and passive.
Sajid Javid said that after reviewing the evidence, which included “upsetting examples of harassment … what is clear from the evidence we gathered is that these activities are not the norm, and predominantly, anti-abortion activities are more passive in nature.”
The typical activities of those protesting outside of abortion clinics in England and Wales “include praying, displaying banners and handing out leaflets,” Javid noted.
Javid said that there are already laws in place to protect people against intimidation and harassment in public spaces, including the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which extends to Scotland, and the Public Order Act 1986.
In England, a buffer zone was imposed by Ealing Council, in west London, around a Marie Stopes abortion clinic in April 2018. The zone prevents any pro-life gathering or speech, including prayer, within about 330 feet of the clinic.
The Ealing buffer zone, which was upheld by the Court of Appeal of England and Wales in August 2019, was cited by Javid as an example of a local government using civil legislation “to restrict harmful protest activities,” rather than a nationwide policy.
Shortly after the Ealing buffer zone was adopted, Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth said that “to remove from the environment of the abortion clinics alternative voices is to limit freedom of choice. Indeed, research shows that many women have been grateful for the last-minute support they have thereby received.”
“The imposition of ‘no-prayer zones’ outside clinics – I mean prayerful vigil, not militant or disruptive action – is unhelpful, unjust and unnecessary,” Bishop Egan said.
Earlier this year the Scottish government introduced a hate crime bill, opposed by the country’s bishops, that would create a crime of stirring up hatred against any of the protected groups covered by the bill, which include race, religion, sexual orientation, and transgender identity.