IT was October 2019 when Alice Murray unexpectedly fell pregnant aged 20. She had just returned to the University of Edinburgh for her third year and had only been with the father a month. While she considered all the options, there was little doubt in her mind about what she wanted to do.
Murray went for an abortion at the city’s Chalmers Street clinic. She felt emotionally ready for it. But that was before she came across protesters.
There were around six of them standing opposite the clinic when she arrived for the first of two appointments. What Murray had felt relatively calm about suddenly became a more stressful experience.
“I initially felt angry because I felt patronised,” said Murray. “I was sure this was what I wanted but I hadn’t taken it lightly, so to then walk past people assuming you haven’t thought it through, I felt angry at that.
“Afterwards, I felt I just had to leave my head and put one foot in front of the other to get past them, and people shouldn’t have to feel like that. You want to be grounded.
“It made the whole experience a lot more stressful. I have always been pro-choice so for me it was just another thing I felt I had to do and the staff in the clinic were so helpful, so the protesters were the only thing that was changing that.”
Everyone has a right to protest, but what would’ve helped in Murray’s situation was a buffer zone.
After her intimidating experience, Murray joined up with two fellow students the following year to launch a national campaign called Back Off Scotland which wants 150-metre buffer zones to be enforced around abortion clinics so women who choose to terminate their pregnancy can do so in peace.
Murray was able to have an
early-stage abortion and only needed to take one pill at the clinic and another at home. Despite having to face pro-life protesters on her first visit to the clinic – which just involves a discussion with medical staff about the process – she felt she was still able to return and go through with the termination.
But she said many women in her position would’ve been put off.
The 23-year-old added: “It [the protests] could be the difference between someone getting an early-stage abortion or a surgical one or not getting one at all.
“A lot of these protesters say they’re giving people other options but that happens inside every clinic. They make sure it’s what you want to do.”
There is not only concern for people like Murray facing an unwanted pregnancy, but also for those having to abort their child because of a medical issue. Most sexual health clinics offer other services too, meaning those attending appointments for problems such as miscarriages are also having to endure protests.
Murray added: “Imagine if you’ve had a miscarriage and you see graphic images on signs of the foetus at different stages? It’s horrible.
“The Chalmers clinic in Edinburgh is also used for other sexual health matters so there are other people that have to use these services that have to see it and they could’ve had abortions in the past.”
Back Off Scotland got off to a flying start and several parties made manifesto commitments on introducing buffer zones.
The idea was also included in the Programme for Government and Women’s Health Plan, but from there, there has been little action.
For several months there was debate between the Scottish Government and councils on who should be implementing the legislation.
Back Off Scotland wanted the law to be made in Holyrood to avoid a postcode lottery. Co-founder Lucy Grieve, Murray and fellow student Lily Roberts – who also had an abortion – met with Women’s Health Minister Maree Todd to press home how urgent the issue was, but they came away feeling as though there was still disagreement about whether the law should be made in town halls or parliament.
Meanwhile, protests seemed to be getting worse. Around 100 activists from the pro-life 40 Days For Life group stood opposite Queen Elizabeth University Hospital’s maternity ward in Glasgow earlier this month which led to Back Off Scotland calling for Todd to resign.
There have been warm words from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who said protesters should stand outside Holyrood and not clinics, but Murray and Grieve say this is no longer enough.
Murray said: “The Glasgow incident is an example of what happens when the government are not proactive.
“There is cross-party support for our campaign but every time there are questions on it there are similar answers that they are working on it. I don’t know how long they can keep saying that and not take action.
“We’re not asking for a complete ban on these protests. I think as long as there’s an option for people to walk in and out without having to see them, that’s the most important thing.”
Grieve added: “70% of Scottish women live in health board areas that have had clinics targeted in the past five years.”
Northern Ireland and Spain have both passed buffer-zone laws recently. In the former, it was the first time the assembly members had passed pro-choice legislation.
Thankfully, after a period of impasse, it would appear Scotland may now follow in their footsteps, with a members’ bill in favour of buffer zones set to be launched by Green MSP Gillian Mackay imminently.
A 12-week consultation will then be launched before a summary of findings goes back to committee. The proposed legislation would then have to go through several votes in parliament before being adopted.
Todd has also convened a working group with Cosla, police and affected councils and health boards to find an “appropriate way forward”.
It’s a long road ahead, but after months of frustration, Grieve said she is confident the legislation will eventually pass.
SHE added: “I think they are realising it’s an issue that’s not going to go away.
“I’m confident the political will is there but it’s just the technicalities and making sure we keep the pressure on the Government.”
Todd said in a statement: “I condemn any attempts to intimidate women as they choose to access abortion services.
“I have convened a working group with partners to seek to find an appropriate way forward in relation to protests or vigils outside clinics.
“We are looking forward to Gillian Mackay bringing forward her members’ bill and I have committed to work constructively with her.”