PICTURE the scene: you are walking into the hospital where you are due to have your appendix removed. A group of solemn-looking individuals stand holding placards with pictures of mutilated appendices, pleas to “save the appendix”, and dubious statistics such as “people who have appendectomies are more likely to commit suicide”. They are praying for you.

Now imagine that you have struggled to decide to attend the hospital at all. You made up an excuse for why you had to take the day off work, because you didn’t want your employer to judge your decision. You never even told close family members that you were getting the operation, because it just seemed simpler to keep it yourself. The stigma is so great that going through it alone is the easier option.

You have not been physically attacked by the protesters, but your morality has been; your strength, in an already difficult moment, is diminished by the visible condemnation of others and the sight of shocking imagery and misinformation. This sounds like a dystopian vision, but for too many women seeking abortions in Scotland, it can be a reality thanks to demonstrations coordinated by US anti-abortion organisation 40 Days for Life.

Is this, in a civilised, modern society, the way that we should expect to be treated when exercising our legal right to medical care? Pro-choice campaigners and a number of local councillors in Glasgow and other local authorities around Scotland, where the protests have taken place, don’t think so. This is why they are calling for “buffer zones” to be introduced around the sites where abortions are administered, following the lead of two London councils, Richmond and Ealing, which recently banned protests within 100 metres of abortion clinics.

In Scotland, the context is slightly different as the majority of abortions are provided in NHS hospitals, as opposed to easily-identifiable clinics, but protesters have been gathering at such hospitals and sexual health clinics in Scotland with increasing frequency. The common denominator between the protests around the UK is 40 Days for Life, which held its first 40-day pro-life vigils in Scotland for Lent in 2016. On its website, 40 Days boasts that it has organised in 855 cities in 61 countries around the world, resulting in 140 “abortion workers” quitting and 100 abortion clinics closing.

As the self-proclaimed “largest internationally coordinated pro-life mobilisation in history”, 40 Days for Life is a well-oiled, well-funded machine. These are facts which should be considered by those inclined towards handwringing over what a no-go zone could mean for the “free speech” rights of ordinary citizens. The proliferation of these demonstrations has coincided exactly with the surge in anti-choice politics in the US – and that is no coincidence. Scotland is but a pawn in a much larger game, and it lies with our politicians to have the good sense to be mindful of that when deciding whether or not to take action on this issue.

Earlier this year, the University of Glasgow Students’ Representative Council was forced to back down on a decision not to affiliate a pro-life group, Glasgow Students for Life, when faced with a lawsuit funded by a right-wing American organisation. ADF International (Alliance Defending Freedom), which has helped drive the Trump administration’s anti-LGBT agenda, began working in London two years ago and has since spent over £400,000 supporting like-minded campaigns in the UK. The Ferret reports that the organisation has a multi-million dollar global budget, and that the source of its funding is shrouded in mystery. On its website, ADF International also expresses support for pro-life groups at Strathclyde and Aberdeen Universities, who achieved similar success in overturning their refused affiliation.

The organisation is already lending its support to legal challenges against the buffer zones in Ealing and Richmond, while in Australia it has provided funding for legal representation for people who have faced prosecution for breaching a similar law. It seems likely that if such a law is introduced in Scotland, ADF International will be hot on the trail.

It’s an astounding picture when you think about it. American money and infrastructure is coordinating demonstrations in the UK – and around the world – in an attempt to further a right-wing agenda, and when elected representatives in those countries seek to take action to protect their citizens against this behaviour, American money is funding legal challenges to prevent them from doing so.

Electoral rules bar foreign donations to political campaigns, but organisations like this are finding ways to influence the domestic politics of untold numbers of countries. In the lead up to Ireland’s referendum on abortion, American organisations were even able to use Facebook to target pro-life ads at Irish voters. It seems hard to imagine how a wee group of people with dodgy signs outside a hospital in Glasgow could slot into an international network that wants to see the rights of women and LGBT people rolled back, but – as they say – follow the money and the connections are there.

Of course, this does not make for an easy situation for your common local councillor, civil servant or MSP in Scotland. But if we are to have any hope of defending women’s right to access abortion without intimidation – and the right of people of Scotland to not have our political discourse and decision-making warped by malignant outside interference – it is essential that our political and legal structures do all that they can to resist these influences.

In effect, these protests are the offline equivalent of the Russian bot. We are being trolled into believing there is a dissent around an issue over which most people in Scotland actually agree. A poll taken in 2015, when discussion was taking place around the devolution of abortion law to Scotland, found that 75% of voters supported women’s right to choose. This view was shared by 72% of Labour voters, 73% of Conservative voters, 80% of SNP voters, and 90%f of Liberal Democrat voters.

As Jillian Merchant of Abortion Rights, which supports the introduction of the buffer zones, says: “The pro-life campaigners protesting outside maternity services represent a very vocal minority opinion. The vast majority of Scots are pro-choice, while one in three women access abortion healthcare. Women accessing abortion services ought to be able do so in the same way they would any other healthcare service, without fear of intimidation or judgment. By standing outside maternity services, pro-life protestors are causing deep upset and intimidation to patients, families and staff – some in very difficult circumstances.”

While Edinburgh City Council ruled out introducing buffer zones earlier this year, Glasgow City Council has reported that it is in talks with Cosla (the national association of local authorities) along with a number of other councils who are considering whether a national approach can be developed. The biggest barrier standing in the way of such a decision will undoubtedly be the “controversy” – but framing the issue as controversial plays right into the hands of those whose primary goal is to advance the social stigma surrounding women’s right to choose. People have the right to protest and the right to free speech, but they don’t have the right to infringe upon a space which should, for good reason, be kept safe for those who need to access it.

A decision made by far less progressive politicians over 50 years ago granted women in Scotland, England and Wales the right to an abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. To allow manufactured dissent in 2019 to stand in the way of protecting the women exercising those rights would be a sad reflection on how far we haven’t come. Let’s send a message that women’s rights are not for sale in Scotland. If enough of us join the chorus, we won’t be silenced.