Back Off Scotland is a campaign group who are asking the Scottish Government to implement a national policy of buffer zones (safe spaces of 150m) around abortion clinics in Scotland. Recently, I had the opportunity of speaking with Lucy, the co-founder of the campaign and have recorded our discussion below.
How the campaign started
Back Off Scotland started in 2020, when Lucy, along with a group of students from Edinburgh University noticed that their local sexual health clinic was being picketed by protesters. Lucy described these groups’ frequent appearances as “bizarre and so wrong, at a time when we couldn’t even meet up with our friends because of the coronavirus restrictions.” To stop the protests and politically-charged activity they saw outside healthcare clinics, they researched some solutions – like local council-led bylaws which could make the activity illegal. In Ealing, a public space protection order had been sought to create local buffer zones, but they found that no equivalent existed in Scotland. They created a petition for Edinburgh Council asking for buffer zones – signed by 5000, supported strongly in their local community beginning with fellow university students. Edinburgh Council passed a motion in January 2021, becoming the first local authority in Scotland to enact buffer zone legislation. However, in February, 40 Days for Life, an anti-abortion group, returned to protesting. The Council informed Back Off Scotland that their motions were not actually legally binding and so the protestors were not going against the law.
It became clear that the campaign would have to expand nationally, with legislation from the Scottish Government before meaningful protection could be provided to those who were attempting to access sexual health services.
The complex geographical interplay between local authority areas, council jurisdictions and sexual health clinics meant that it would be difficult to protect targeted areas, without excess bureaucracy and administration.
The campaign has seen a lot of support – including from somewhat unexpected groups like male Conservative MPs in the Scottish Parliament. Recently, at the fundraiser in Glasgow, a diverse range of ages and genders were present supporting the cause. The aim of the campaign, to allow people to safely access reproductive healthcare, is one that speaks to many members of the public despite abortion itself being a highly contested issue.
Current policy work
Proposed major legislation regarding buffer zones is the new Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) bill – a private member’s bill proposed by Gillian Mackay, a Scottish Green MSP. The bill is currently in consultation period – with members of the Scottish public being encouraged to participate – a link is included at the end of this article. Back Off Scotland are playing a key part in the consultation – Lucy will be involved in summarising its results. She also notes that BPAS are funding the legislation – one advantage of this is that it will be fast-tracked through parliament and so provide protection for women sooner. It has also been endorsed by the Scottish Government – First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, in particular. Gaining support from the Scottish Government has not been an easy journey, though – with the most “disheartening part of the campaign” being the period in which Back Off discussed buffer zones with Maree Todd, Scottish Women’s Health minister. She was steadfastly set on not introducing or supporting a national buffer zone policy, preferring instead for local authorities to individually deal with them. In 2022, Nicola Sturgeon came out in support of a national policy, changing the attitude that the government had taken previously. She said her preference was for national legislation, to ensure “a consistency of approach”. This symbolised a turning point for the campaign and in government policy. Back Off Scotland have been talking to Nicola Sturgeon – as recently as the emergency summit held in June on abortion, and reported she has “taken hold of the reins”.
Gillian Mackay MSP was described by Lucy as “the perfect person to be leading the bill” because of her strong advocacy skills, understanding of the issue and ability to draw support for the bill from other members.
Challenges to the buffer zones policy
In 2018, the government reviewed a potential buffer zones policy and decided that it was unnecessary. But recently Northern Ireland have implemented a safe access zones bill and the Scottish one is currently underway. I asked Lucy why she thought the policy had not been implemented before, and the potential challenges to it now.
Potential legal challenges were a major consideration before – a national policy can open itself up to more publicity and therefore criticism, compared to local authority-led initiatives. For example, the safe access zones bill in Northern Ireland is being examined in the Supreme Court on request of the Attorney General for NI to assess whether it is within the legislative capacity of the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, Back Off understand that there are resources allocated for legal challenges by the Scottish Government if they arise.
The case in Northern Ireland reflects some of the worries MSPs have as well – some are concerned over the criminalisation aspect. This appears to be a debate over whether entering safe access zones should be a criminal act or not – but as Lucy points out, harassing and intimidating people otherwise would not be acceptable, and it is important to create safe spaces from this type of behaviour for people who are particularly vulnerable.
The last challenge is balancing the rights to freedom of expression with safely accessing healthcare. We should all be able to use the healthcare facilities we require and wish to use, but we should also be able to share our opinions freely.
Lucy stresses the importance of remembering that when protests occur outside abortion clinics, they affect a wide range of people coming to that clinic and can deter or add extra stress to their experience. Rights should not be prized above each other – allowing anti-abortion protests outside abortion clinics, knowing that undue distress is being caused to already vulnerable people, is doing exactly that. People, particularly those undergoing medical treatments, should feel safe in the public. Anti-abortion protestors can share their opinions in other ways, without intimidating or harassing medical patients.
Nicola Sturgeon’s response to this dilemma is noteworthy: “my call to those who want to protest against abortion to come and do it outside this parliament where the laws are made and leave women alone and stop trying to intimidate them”
Lucy believes that many anti-buffer zone protestors do not agree with legal abortions and so oppose any form of abortion legislation that may enable access to it. She argues that the issue is not a pro/anti-choice decision – accessing healthcare is the crux of the matter. After all, 1 in 3 women in the UK have an abortion. When the campaign began, she said they toyed with the idea of introducing patient escorts or counter-protests where the protests were occurring. This notion was scrapped as they spoke with healthcare workers and realised that any activity like that outside of a clinic could be misconstrued and seen as threatening for patients and/or workers. It would be far safer to just create an apolitical space outside clinics – which is what buffer zones aim to do.
Essentially, this policy is trying to ensure patients can access healthcare and fully use the rights awarded to them through the 1967 Abortion Act.
Wider issues and the future of the campaign
The fragility of abortion laws has been made clear recently by Roe v Wade being overturned by the US Supreme Court. Lucy hopes this will be an opportunity for the UK to strengthen its own laws, rather than follow the same path. She highlights some of the issues within the current abortion policy that could be worked on to improve access to abortions and consistency of policy across the UK. These include uneven access across the NHS – in Scotland, abortions for non-medical reasons beyond 18/20 weeks cannot be performed. Women must travel to England for them – an unnecessary additional expense to the already sensitive situation they find themselves in. Also in Scotland, there is no choice between a medical and surgical abortion – all patients must get a medical one.
To get an abortion, there are some bureaucratic laws which are unique to the procedure – with two doctors required to sign off and a specific list of reasons which must be matched to get an abortion.
There is also a clause in the current law that allows healthcare workers involved in the process – from administration workers to doctors – to decline treatment based on their personal views on abortion. One case that Lucy highlighted was the horrific story of Savita Halappanavar – an Indian Irish woman who died after being denied an abortion. Even though her abortion was denied because Irish law did not allow it at the time, rather than a staff member personally disagreeing, it demonstrates the severity of denial. When people require a medical intervention, it should be taken seriously, and be conducted in a safe environment. The potential to be refused treatment on the grounds that the treatment provider did not personally support it is a scary and very real one for women in Britain today.
Seeing the success of the campaign so far, I was impressed and wondered whether there were any plans to expand and cover some of the issues we had discussed above. Lucy said she hopes that in the future, Back Off will expand to cover some of these vital issues, seeing the lack of late trimester provision in Scotland as a particularly worrying one.
Lastly, Lucy’s advice to feminists who may be reluctant to talk about issues like abortion (or other feminist topics) publicly is remembering that it is a prevalent procedure in the UK – around 12,000 abortions occur in Scotland alone each year. This clear demand shows the need for legal and safe abortions. As well as discussing the prevalence of the issue, relating these figures to humans and real situations that can occur to anyone can bring empathy to conversations. There is no universal reason for abortion – some occur for unplanned pregnancies, others during wanted pregnancies and some because there is no other option available for the woman. Keeping up with the latest news and campaigns for issues you strongly care about will help your discussions – Lucy recommends Instagram accounts that focus on activism (such as Back Off Scotland). These are also easy to share with other people.
How to support Buffer Zones policy
For readers in Scotland, filling out the consultation for the Scottish Government is a perfect start – here is the link. If you follow the work of Back Off Scotland and BPAS, you can find out more about buffer zones policy and the wider conversation on abortion, and the latest campaigns being run to push these issues to the top of the government agenda.
Writing to your MP about issues you become aware in your community, or problems you believe policy changes should solve is very useful.
Back Off Scotland website
Written by Aysha Sohail