The National:

FRUSTRATED pro-choice campaigners are calling on the Scottish Government to make implementing buffer zones around abortion clinics an urgent priority, insisting progress on legislation has been too slow.

Lucy Grieve and Alice Murray – co-founders of Back Off Scotland – have told The National they have felt “sidelined” at several points since launching their campaign almost three years ago, branding ministers’ support of the policy as “lip service”.

While the pair have welcomed First Minister Humza Yousaf’s “unequivocal” backing for buffer zones, they say the government should have taken a lead on the issue instead of it being left to Green MSP Gillian Mackay to introduce a private member’s bill.

It is expected a final proposal of the Abortion Services Safe Access Zones Bill – which attracted more than 12,000 consultation responses – will be tabled in the coming weeks, but Grieve and Murray have also been frustrated no definitive timeline has emerged as to how and when the bill will progress through Holyrood.

Grieve told The National: “It’s been a frustrating nearly three years where we’ve felt sidelined at times.

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“We’re feeling very good about Humza’s commitments he’s made but I think neither of us thought we’d be here in the same spot almost three years on from when we started after the graft we’ve put in.

“It’s frustrating and sad progress has been slow. It feels like the government have been holding us at arms length.

“I do feel frustrated at the protesters themselves, but these people are not breaking the law yet. Some of these people are there because their entire life is religious ideology and that’s what they think they should do.”

Murray – who had to face off protesters outside the Chalmers Centre in Edinburgh when she went for an abortion appointment in 2019 – said she could not understand why it wasn’t being prioritised when vulnerable patients desperately need protecting from harassment.

She said: “People on the outside, I think, are really shocked this isn’t policy already.

“We have a lot of understanding and respect for how long legislation takes to pass but I think to the everyday person they are going to question how has there been years of 40-day protests and no action?

“I think when it went into the Programme for Government, it seems like that was just lip service. I think they support it, but I don’t think it’s a priority and I don’t understand why it isn’t. That’s what’s so frustrating.

“No one is frustrated at any one individual, but if you put this in your Programme for Government and you support a policy, make it happen.

“I just think there’s too much standing around talking about it. This is about protecting patients and this need to be a priority.”

The National:

Since launching Back Off Scotland in 2020, Grieve and Murray have seen demonstrations outside hospitals and clinics grow in size and become more common, while anti-abortion protesters have felt emboldened by the overturning of Roe v Wade.

Roe v Wade was a landmark ruling in the US Supreme Court in 1973 which made abortion legal in the US, but it was overturned last year by the same court, ending the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.

Individual states are now able to ban the procedure, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signing a bill last week to prohibit abortions after six weeks.

Murray said the changes in the US sparked positive discussions this side of the pond about protecting abortion rights but more could have been done.

Murray said: “The only positive I could take from it was I think it gave some policymakers over here a steer in the right direction. The first abortion summit I don’t think would’ve necessarily happened when it did had it not been for Roe v Wade being overturned.

“But then looking back, not enough has been done. It’s a year on and we could’ve been utilising that time to make sure we are protecting people.”

Murray got an abortion aged 20 and she said protesters turned what she felt should have been a simple experience into a complicated, hurtful one.

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She said a lot of people she had spoken to also felt it wasn’t the abortion that made them feel anxious, but the arena of people supposedly offering them help outside.

“When you go into a clinic and speak to staff, they are trained in making sure you feel confident and assured in their choice, so to have someone outside questioning that when you’re maybe already in a vulnerable state is really hard,” she said.

“It completely changed the experience I would’ve had. It should’ve been non-traumatic but they made it so and a lot of people we speak to feel the same.

“For me, government inaction sends out a big message that it’s fine for them [protesters] to be there.”

Back Off Scotland has been clear from the start that it is not about getting rid of anti-abortion sentiment or views, but giving women the space they need and deserve when accessing healthcare.

Grieve said: “I think as a campaign we’ve been very clear that people can have their thoughts on abortion. It’s not about stopping anti-choice, anti-abortion narrative. It’s there, it will always be there with an issue like this.

“For us it’s been more about acting as a safeguard and removing a political ideology from the gate of a hospital."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "The First Minister met with Gillian Mackay MSP during his first full week in office to discuss the progress on introducing safe access zones in Scotland and ensuring women can access healthcare free from intimidation, harassment or unwanted influence.

“During that productive meeting, he made clear that Scottish Government support for Ms Mackay’s Members’ Bill is unequivocal and unwavering. Work to bring forward the legislation continues at pace and we hope the see a Bill introduced as soon as possible.

“The First Minister and Ms Mackay agreed it is essential the bill moves forward as swiftly as practicable and is robust enough to withstand legal challenge.” 

In response to the concerns expressed by Back Off Scotland, Mackay said: "We want to challenge ourselves to go as fast as possible. Timetables are comfortable. 

"Actually challenging ourselves to go as quick as possible is not a comforable place for government to be because that's not their normal way of working and I think it gives comfort to some people, at least, that they are taking this issue seriously.

"I absolutely understand everyone's frustrations over the fact this has taken so long but I think it's turned into a real opportunity with seeing the outcome of Clare Bailey's bill in the Supreme Court and the Public Order Bill in England. You don't have to reinvent the wheel every time you do legislation.

"I hope everyone takes comfort in the fact we are challenging ourselves to go quicker every day."