THE proposal sounds simple enough: create “safe zones” around abortion clinics so that women attending them cannot be harassed or intimidated. A resolution calling for a review of the law to let councils put such zones in place has been submitted for consideration at the SNP’s upcoming autumn conference.

In response, a spokesperson for the Catholic Church has asserted that “the right to peacefully protest is the foundation of any democracy and should not be infringed”.

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Most Scots would doubtless agree, but what does “peacefully” mean in this particular context? Can a protest be simultaneously peaceful and profoundly distressing, not just to those who are its targets but also to many others who are not?

There are no standalone abortion clinics in Scotland; every facility where abortions are carried out or referrals for them are made is contained in a building that provides numerous other services. Endorsement of banner-waving vigils targeting NHS sites means endorsing the harassment of many others too, including people going through the most distressing experiences of their lives.

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Anyone standing outside a sexual health clinic with an anti-abortion placard risks deterring people from accessing that building for other reasons, such as STD testing or treatment, or obtaining contraception. Presumably those defending these site-specific protests believe this collateral damage is a price worth paying if it means potentially swaying the choice of even one woman who is there seeking a referral for a termination.

Sexual health services are not easily accessed to begin with. Leaving aside feelings of fear, shame or embarrassment (only exacerbated by these clinics standing apart from the rest of the NHS), getting seen by a doctor or nurse is rarely straightforward, with a patchwork of providers around the country operating a dizzying array of different services. There are drop-in facilities, appointment-only slots, services specifically for under-18s, or gay men, or black and minority ethnic patients. Confused? Imagine trying to navigate all this in a panic, after confirming a crisis pregnancy. Imagine doing so while trying to maintain your attendance at school, or working a zero-hours job you can’t afford to lose, or being solely responsible for a disabled child who requires 24/7 care.

The National:

Search on the website of Sandyford, which provides sexual health services in the Glasgow and Clyde area, and you’ll find opening hours for 16 different centres. However, only by clicking on “service updates” will you learn that one is closed until further notice and services at another will be suspended for the whole of next month. Search on the Lothian Sexual Health service for “local clinics” and you’ll see reference to 10 across the region, but a search brings up some with opening “hours” of as little as 90 minutes per week.

Imagine clearing all of these hurdles to access, psyching yourself up, then finally approaching the sexual health clinic only to find the eyes of a still, stilent throng burning into you. Making assumptions about you. Judging you.

Arguably worse still are the demonstrations outside hospitals, such as those that take place for the duration of Lent. Some years ago I went along to see for myself what these supposedly peaceful protests involved. Sure enough, those taking part stood across the road from the hospital (a dedicated security guard was making sure of that) and they were quiet, speaking to me only after I approached and engaged them in conversation. They were hushed, but were they peaceful? Absolutely not.

There’s nothing peaceful about a sign declaring “CHOOSE LIFE” being held aloft outside a maternity unit. This is a building to which women are regularly taken when bleeding, distraught, and praying to a god they might not even believe in that everything will be OK. It’s a place where big hearts break upon learning tiny hearts have stopped. There is nothing peaceful about viciously rubbing salt into open wounds with stark capital letters.

There will of course be parents who find comfort in their religious faith following a miscarriage or stillbirth, or the failure of a round of IVF, but this will be their choice. It’s hard to imagine that in the immediate aftermath, upon exiting the car park with a right-hand turn, many would be reassured to read: “Before I formed in the womb, I knew you”.

Of course, if it were possible to target a protest specifically at women seeking abortions, this would be no less abhorrent. Those who claim otherwise, who dress up their blatant misogyny as “pro-life”, are a dying breed whose last-gasp claims to be a persecuted minority are met with nothing but derision.

But if the bid to create “safe zones” is successful, this will not ban public protests against abortion. It will simply prevent them from doing so directly outside medical facilities attended by people who, for a range of reasons, may be in an extremely vulnerable state. We would not stand for right-to-die campaigners issuing calls for legislative change from outside geriatric wards or funeral homes. We would condemn anyone who chose to protest against the testing of primary one by doorstopping teachers. So why on earth should we tolerate this?