Nobody should be harassed, abused or intimidated when accessing healthcare. That shouldn’t be a controversial thing to say, yet, here in Scotland, we have seen a growing presence of so-called ‘vigils’ from campaigners outside medical facilities that provide abortion services.
A lot of the protests have focused on the Sandyford Clinic in Glasgow, a specialist sexual health service that, among other things, provides abortion services.
The campaigners turn up outside, often with intimidating banners and cameras. That particular clinic is on a fairly narrow street, which means that the campaigners are usually only a few feet away from the entrance and anyone going into the facility has to pass them. Nobody should have to experience that.
The ‘vigils’ are not new, but they have become more frequent and more intense over recent years. At present, 70 per cent of women of reproductive age in Scotland live in a health board area that has had hospitals or clinics targeted by anti-choice groups in the past five years.
That is why my Green colleague Gillian Mackay MSP is introducing a much-needed Members Bill that, if successful, will create 150-metre harassment-free zones in which campaigners are banned. It is shocking that such a bill is necessary in the first place, and it is infuriating that so many people have had to endure such intimidation for so long.
Clinicians have shared stories about the severe impact these protests have had on patients. This includes people accessing abortions, but also people accessing rape counselling, sexual health services and other healthcare services that share the same campuses.
The campaign group Back Off Scotland has collated and published harrowing and upsetting accounts that they have received from service users and medical staff about the impact these protests have had on them.
One woman said that she felt “haunted” by an image from one of the posters being used by protesters, while another said that, five years later, she still felt trauma because of them. Their accounts are heart-breaking, and Gillian’s Bill aims to ensure that nobody else is ever made to feel that way again.
Gillian has secured cross-party support for her plan. It is also supported by many medical professionals and has been endorsed by the Scottish section of the British Medical Association and the Royal College of GPs. Additionally, the vast majority of the public support the bill, with one poll showing that 82 per cent of people in Scotland back it.
Buffer zones are not new. They have already been established in Canada, Australia and some parts of England. They are a tried, tested, simple and effective step. Where they have been introduced, they have provided welcome protections and reassurances.
There will always be a place for protest in Scotland, but it is right that safety and the prevention of harm to others takes precedent. The place to protest the country’s laws is outside Parliament, not outside medical centres.
There is also a bigger international picture to consider. Across the world, we are seeing a series of reactionary and alarming moves against women’s rights. Anti-choice campaigners are particularly buoyant following disgraceful moves to limit access to, and even criminalise, abortion healthcare in the US.
We must stand in support and solidarity with everyone in the US who is having their rights removed, and part of that solidarity is ensuring that we have the strongest possible protections here.
The US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs Wade, and the litany of attacks seen on minority groups emphasises that the progress we make is often far more fragile than it appears. It is vital that we protect it, and that is what buffer zones will do.
Please sign and share our petition to support the introduction of buffer zones in Scotland.