Edinburgh City Council has agreed to support the introduction of ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics in Scotland – to prevent women being harassed by pro-life campaigners.
The move follows repeated calls for 150-metre ‘no-protest zones’ to be erected outside the entrance to the Chalmers Street Sexual Health Centre, after a survey showed a majority of women are made to feel uncomfortable by pro-life protests outside of the clinic.
The results of the survey, carried out in partnership with the clinic over April, May and June of 2020, showed that 56% of the people visiting the clinic felt very uncomfortable due to the protesters, although 9% thought it was the right of the protesters to voice their opinions.
Back Off Scotland, a campaign group started by Edinburgh University students, was set up in response to the harassment of women seeking abortion healthcare at the Chalmers Street clinic.
Anti-choice protests in Scotland date back to 1999, with hospitals and clinics across the country being targeted.
Protestors often approach patients directly and have distributed medically inaccurate leaflets. Even those not accessing abortion services are targeted, according to the group.
Back Off Scotland says protests are a threat to privacy and right to access legal, essential medical services.
Now, a petition organised by Back Off Scotland has been accepted by Edinburgh City Council, following a meeting of the local authority’s policy committee.
The petition, which attracted more than 4800 signatures, stated: “Anti-choice activity directed at individuals threatens their right to privacy and right to access legal, essential medical services.
“Patients have reported feeling intimidated and harassed as they try to access medical care in confidence, and that tactics such as praying, rosaries, and medically incorrect leaflets make them feel pressured when accessing abortion and other sexual health services.
“Women not accessing abortion care are also targeted – with one woman with a pram being told ‘she hadn’t killed her baby so why would she support abortion’, and another being told she would die of cancer for having an abortion in the past.
“Both sites that provide abortion services in Edinburgh are targeted by protesters – there is no way for abortion patients to avoid them.
“Current law does not give the police the power to stop this harassment.”
Speaking at the debate, SNP council leader Adam McVey said: “There are certain principles I would certainly hope we would all be in agreement with – certainly the right to access healthcare facilities unimpeded when needed is one of the absolute cornerstones of our society, as is free speech.
“But free speech doesn’t give us the right to run into a crowded building and shout ‘fire’ at the top of our lungs – there has to be sensible parameters around how we engage in some of these questions as a society, that are very emotive for many people.
“That principle of people being able to access healthcare if needed, when they needed, and unimpeded, is sacrosanct.”
Conservative opposition councillors did not explicitly oppose the aims of the petition, but did raise concerns that the matter of legislation is for the Scottish government, not a local authority.
Leader of the council’s Conservative group Iain Whyte said: “This issue is not within the competence of the council.
“In speaking to your proposal – it was mentioned that this is a national issue – and that is the best way of dealing with this.
“The petition calls for new legislation – that’s not a matter within the competence of the council, that’s for the Scottish Parliament to determine.”
Although the council cannot introduce the legislation itself, it will now engage with the Scottish government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) to help support that aim.
Following the meeting, Back Off Scotland co-founder Lucy Grieve said: “Before we expanded our campaign nationally, our goal had been to get Edinburgh City Council to legitimise buffers city-wide.
“It’s a positive move that the council leader is now going to engage with the Scottish Government and COSLA in support of this matter because they, like us, believe that this issue is best tackled nationally.
“Protecting patients from intimidation and harassment when seeking healthcare is a bipartisan issue and one that requires action from the Scottish Government now.”
City Centre Green Party councillor Claire Miller, who has been a vocal supporter of the Back Off Scotland campaign, said: “I’m glad that the committee today agreed to work with other councils and the Scottish Government to protect everyone who needs to attend sexual health clinics.
“It is long overdue and I welcome moves to create safe buffer zones around sexual health centres so that everyone can attend without encountering protests.
“It’s just a shame that all councillors could not speak up with me, loud and clear, in unequivocal support for access to healthcare without harassment.
“I speak up on access to abortion because others feel it’s too dangerous for them – I am in public life to be a representative, and I won’t shy away from speaking out for people I represent.”
Story by local democracy reporter Joseph Anderson