THE battle for buffer zones is not the first time Scottish women have been at the forefront of the fight to protect reproductive rights.

Digging through newspaper clippings, newsletters and various handwritten documents gathered from pro-choice campaigners at the Glasgow Women’s Library one thing became quickly clear – there was a distinctive Scottish approach to the issue in the early 1980s after repeated attempts were made to restrict abortion laws.

And for one simple reason – the MPs who were most prolific in proposing the changes were Scottish, and in a time pre-devolution, women in Scotland felt they had a duty to stand up and be heard.

READ MORE: Data reveals abortion trends in Scotland similar over time

There are historic parallels with the current campaign led by Back Off Scotland to impose 150-meter buffer zones around clinics in response to pro-life activists harassing women who are accessing those services.

In November 1999, an Edinburgh sexual health clinic was forced to close after anti-abortion group Precious Life began a similar campaign, deploying “violent tactics”, as described in one pamphlet, and picketing. In response the Pro-Choice Action Group (PCAG) was established, with Liz Armstrong, a main player in the Scottish Abortion Campaign (SAC), Roz Foyer of the STUC, and SNP MSP Linda Fabiani speaking at the first meeting, amongst others.

Kristin Hay, a doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde, told the Sunday National: “It’s a fight that never stopped.”

The National: Kristin HayKristin Hay

Pregnancy termination became legal in the UK in 1967, after over 30 years of campaigning by activists. The MP who introduced the private members' bill was LibDem David Steel, then MP for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, and later Presiding Officer at the Scottish Parliament.

There are also many links in Scotland to the anti-abortion movement, as Scottish professor Ian Donald was one of the founding members of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) in 1967.

But that was only the beginning – between 1974 and 1979 the House of Commons held an annual debate on abortion every February, and repeated attempts to change the legislation would follow.

The wording in the Abortion Act left a lot open to interpretation, and it was the lack of consistency in the provision of services in Scotland that galvanised the campaign, as well as moves by another Scottish MP to amend the Bill itself and intensive lobbying from the Catholic Church to restrict laws further.

John Corrie, MP for Bute and North Ayrshire, introduced a private members bill in 1979 which would have changed the wording to the Act to restrict the grounds women could procure an abortion, and to reduce the time limit to 18 weeks gestation. The Bill managed to pass three readings and get to committee stage before it was dropped due to public pressure and a “Campaign Against Corrie” launched by the SAC and the UK-wide National Abortion Campaign (NAC).

The campaigners wrote relentlessly to MPs asking them to oppose the Bill created pamphlets to spread the word – including one which showed a cartoon of a pregnant Corrie in a floral dress and clutching a Harrods handbag – and held a 2000 strong march in Glasgow alongside trade unions, women’s groups, student unions and other organisations.

A note in a newsletter sent to activists after the event read: “The STUC were particularly impressed by the size of the demonstration, one of the biggest they have been involved in, on any theme, in recent years.”

By linking with trade unions and allowing men to take part in the movement, something which was much more contentious in the NAC, Scottish activists made the issue apply to everyone.

Hay, who has been researching the pro-choice campaign in Scotland since 2017 as part of her masters and then PHD, said that this was a smart move.

She said: “They used that kind of Scottish class consciousness to sort of create abortion not as a woman’s issue but as a human rights issue, which I think is so like clever and accurate, that it isn’t just something that impacts women.

“It’s actually something that impacts the workplace, everyone’s just day-to-day life, their autonomy, the right to exist, their citizenship.

“They used the traditional Scottish class solidarity of these long-standing relationships to gain support and gain traction.”

At protests in London campaigners had distinct Scottish banners, and in pamphlets focussed on Scotland-only issues, creating a unique link to Scottish identity and culture. The biggest problem was getting access to services, and campaigners set up a network letting women know which doctors would be most amenable to putting them forward for abortion services, after many suffered delays and obfuscation from pro-life GPs. There were even pamphlets advising women to temporarily register at a friend’s address and pretend to be on holiday, in order to access vital healthcare in a different health board area, despite the fact that it was legal. The consciousness clause in the Act gave doctors and nurses a get-out, but many would delay and not pass on women to other practitioners instead, Hay adds.

SHE said that the campaign railed against the view that Scotland was a more morally conservative country than the rest of the UK and it changed the tone of the conversation and made a “real impact”.

She said: “I think what it did is it created this kind of pro-choice consciousness because a lot of the things that the SAC and the NAC more broadly, a lot of the things they wanted to do didn’t actually happen.”

Hay points to expanding abortion provision, creating specific outpatient clinics, issues which she says are seen as a “failure” and led to the campaign being mostly written out of history, or used as a footnote. But the legacy of the campaign is still evident today, she adds, referencing the expanded use of early medical abortion at home, which was introduced in 2017 after abortion law was finally devolved, and relaxed even further during the pandemic.

Speaking about the SAC campaign, Hay added that it became “pro-body autonomy and very Scottish”.

She added: “It was Scottish focussed, it was local and it was like using that [Scottish] identity to say right we’re going to go against this and we’re going to create this. I do think now to things like in 2017 when we were one of the first to provide abortion pills at home, I saw that as almost this culmination of 50 years of permeating Scottish culture with a pro-choice consciousness.

“I think that’s the legacy of the campaign and of activism in Scotland and it was through that successful recruitment for trade unions that had after working with the SAC, they had a duty to stand up for abortion rights and stand up for women’s rights, and building those connections that couldn’t be dissolved was really important as well.”

When it came to devolution, abortion law was reserved by the Westminster government, much to the fury of some activists in the SAC, although many welcomed it. Hay said there were fears at the time that had abortion law been devolved the laws would become more restrictive than the rest of the UK.

Donald Dewar, then Secretary of State for Scotland, and party whips came under fire for not informing fellow Labour MPs that they could back a Tory amendment to let the Scottish parliament regulate abortion law in the devolution Bill. Newspaper reports from the time say the Catholic Church also lobbied specific MPs right before the vote, in the hope that if the law was devolved, they could tighten the laws north of the border.

IT wasn’t until 2016 that abortion law was eventually devolved to Scotland, but by that time the anit-abortion sentiment wasn’t as strong culturally, and there have been significant moves to improve access to healthcare for women, and to allow them to choose whether or not to start a family. There is also a Scottish First Minister, and many more female MSPs serving in Holyrood than when the parliament was created, and all of this has influenced the distinct Scottish approach to reproductive rights.

Hay added: “I think that’s what shows the changing tide over the past 20 years because female leadership and representation in the Scottish Parliament has been very dramatic in terms of its improvement, there’s still an issue [with representation] but it has improved and that’s when we’ve started to see things like the baby box, period poverty, telemedicine and all of these priorities kind of come through and that’s why representation matters.”

The recent swell in protestors outside of clinics in Scotland has been widely credited to right-wing American religious groups who have been recruiting people to picket outside of clinics.

Abortion rights are currently under threat across the pond with the risk of Roe vs Wade being repealed in the US, Hay added that there are parallels to look out for. If the Supreme Court repeal the act, each state would be able to change the time limit on abortions as they pleased, which would impact hundreds, if not thousands of women.

She said: “What is lovely about Scotland is we’re not fighting for abortion in its conceptual, abstract form – that seems to be a resolved issue that abortion will continue.

“The things we need to watch out for moving forward is restrictions on time limits, and these little nuances because the only successful restriction on the Abortion Act was the upper time limit which was introduced in the 90s.”

Hay added that Scotland “politically takes a position as being very proactive in terms of reproductive rights” and that she credits this in part to the SAC.