We spoke to Lucy Grieve, co-founder of women’s health rights movement Back Off Scotland, about campaigning for safe access to abortion services across Scotland. Health facilities offering abortion healthcare are routinely picketed by religious protestors who harass women on their way in. Right now, during Lent, protests have been stepped up as part of the so-called 40 Days for Life campaign. This kind of intimidation is illegal across the rest of the UK and, if a “buffer zones” bill passes through Holyrood this year, it will be outlawed in Scotland too, making it illegal to protest within 150 metres of any abortion clinic.
Our chat with Lucy is the first in a new interview series where we’ll speak to inspiring people working for humanist causes in Scotland and beyond.
Can you tell us a bit more about your own background as a campaigner and person?
I’ve always been keen on learning about reproductive justice issues and studying social anthropology during my undergrad really piqued my interest in the barriers that exist when accessing women’s health. I’m currently studying for my Masters in Public Health at the University of Edinburgh. Recently I moved to Glasgow and when I’m not speaking about abortion rights to everybody I know I can be found camping somewhere in a Scottish forest with my boyfriend in his Landrover Defender.
When and why did you start Back Off Scotland?
In October 2020, myself and a few friends became aware of a growing number of anti-choice protestors outside Chalmers Centre in Edinburgh. As an Edinburgh native, I was surprised to hear about this happening in the midst of a pandemic. Protests of this nature constitute harassment, they are intimidating, and they work to undo the decades of effort that won us the abortion rights we have—so we decided to do something. We set up an Instagram page advocating for the introduction of safe access “buffer zones” where those accessing services would be able to attend without running the gauntlet of protestors. We’ve been fighting for the implementation of buffer zones ever since. Back Off Scotland isn’t about being pro-choice or anti-choice—it’s about protecting patients across Scotland seeking abortion services from targeted, on-street harassment and intimidation that may act as a barrier to accessing healthcare.
“We will keep going until there’s a buffer zone around every facility providing abortion care in Scotland” Lucy Grieve
You’ve grown a really impressive grass-roots movement. How did that process compare to your expectations? How difficult was it?
Initially I genuinely thought it was going to be a six-week project that would see buffer zones implemented. I was perhaps a bit naïve given it’s turned into a multi-year uphill battle but I’m really heartened by all the support and solidarity we’ve been able to foster. When we launched I had no idea how widespread these protests were and I had only heard the stories of my friends who had been harassed whilst accessing abortion care as students. What was most surprising was how far-reaching the consequences of these protests were. We’ve now heard from hundreds of people across Scotland who have been negatively impacted: from those accessing abortion care for a much-wanted pregnancy due to foetal anomalies to women who experienced sexual assault and were put off seeking help by these groups.
What are some of your biggest victories so far?
We were delighted to meet and receive backing from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in summer 2022. It felt like a real turning point for the campaign. Another big victory for the safe access zone movement in general was December’s UK Supreme Court decision to uphold similar legislation in Northern Ireland – it set a really important precedent.
What does the future hold for Back Off Scotland?
We will keep going until there is a buffer zone around every facility providing abortion care in Scotland. Beyond that, we’ve been doing some work on trying to improve mid-trimester services—we will see that through to an appropriate point. We also have our eyes on a decriminalisation campaign in the near future.
What would you like to see in a new first minister?
We’d like a pro-choice first minister committed to working with Gillian Mackay MSP to bring forward buffer zone legislation, but beyond that someone who can champion abortion rights and commit to decriminalisation.
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