An image of Gemma leaning against a concrete waymarker, probably on a mountain walk, on a foggy day. She smiles at the camera, has died auburn hair and a maroon jacket.

Humanist Society interview series: Gemma Clark, abortion rights campaigner

May 22, 2023

At Humanist Society Scotland, we love talking to inspiring campaigners. We got to know abortion-rights activist and primary schoolteacher Gemma Clark through her awareness-raising work on the need for buffer zones around abortion services. Scotland is the last part of the UK where religious protestors can harass women entering these services. Recently, Gemma helped to create the inspiring counter-protest against the 40 Days For Life harassment campaign outside Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow. But, as we found out in our interview, Gemma’s connection to humanism runs much deeper.

Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and how you got into campaigning on
humanist causes?

I first learned about humanism as a teenager doing religious education. My Christian teacher was excellent because she introduced me to humanist ideas and I was able to decide for myself that it made a lot of sense. Back then, we were still under Section 28 (and civil partnerships were still years away) but I learned that the Humanist Society was carrying out ceremonies for LGBT+ couples anyway, because homophobia and inequality were irrational and unfair. My exploration of humanism really shaped me as a young person. I ended up choosing a humanist ceremony for my wedding and this partly led to my husband becoming a humanist celebrant. I have always used rationality, reason and statistics to understand the world. Oppression of any group is never evidence-based, reasonable or rational.

You are particularly passionate about fighting for abortion rights. Can you tell us more about that?
My school education on abortion was terrible (and I went to nondenominational schools). I was subjected to anti-abortion propaganda from local church ministers. It makes me angry to think back to it. It took me a long time to rationalise all the religious propaganda I had absorbed.

A conversation with a midwife made me realise that I had believed a lot of myths about abortion. The rational perspective is that what’s inside you is not yet sentient, and you, the pregnant person, are a real, living being who must come first. The real awakening for me was during lockdown, when I learned that anti-abortion protesters were picketing hospitals while the rest of us were staying at home away from our friends and families. I found it appalling that these “pro-life” people were flouting lockdown rules in the middle of a pandemic that was killing thousands of people. I discovered the Back Off Scotland campaign and have been a huge supporter ever since.

I remember the moment that I got a news notification that Roe V Wade had been
overturned. I was packing up my classroom to prepare for the new term. I was shocked and nearly burst into tears. I spent that weekend recording podcast interviews about abortion rights. I also attended a rally and got to know other activists. I returned to school on Monday and still felt upset seeing my pupils’ unsuspecting, innocent little faces, especially the girls. I kept thinking to myself “you deserve so much better than this and my generation needs to fix this.” I realised two things: we need to improve the law to ensure our rights cannot be removed and young people need proper abortion education.

Anti-abortion protestors outside Queen Elizabeth Unversity Hospital in Glasgow on 2 May 2023.
Anti-abortion protestors outside Queen Elizabeth Unversity Hospital in Glasgow on 2 May 2023. Photo: Gemma Clark.

The real awakening for me was during lockdown, when I learned that anti-abortion protesters were picketing hospitals while the rest of us were staying at home away from our friends and families.

Gemma Clark

How does your campaigning work tie in with your teaching? 
I feel a massive sense of responsibility to young people. I also learned through research carried out by my trade union that abortion is often not taught at all, or sometimes only as a “moral issue” in religious education. I find this very unfair as no
other form of healthcare is politicised in this way. Although progress is being made, the rights and welfare of young LGBT+ people and girls are still not prioritised
enough in schools. This is why I have petitioned the Scottish parliament to create a facts- and health-focused abortion education resource. Abortion is healthcare and young people have a right to know all the facts. The stigma needs to be challenged.

What does the future hold? What changes would you like to see in Scotland?
Activism is exhausting and I hope to be able to scale it back a little once abortion rights are secure in Scotland. We need buffer zones, proper education, full decriminalisation of abortion, and destigmatised healthcare. But I have learned that human rights are interconnected. The American religious right are active in Scotland. These organisations stoke culture wars and are using transgender rights as a wedge issue to go after the rest of the LGBT+ community and women. The fight for human rights and equality will continue beyond my lifetime. Still, I hope to see the rights of women and LGBTQIA+ people advanced and protected in Scotland.

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