Clarke, Isioma Okolo, Gemma Clark, Lucy Grieve, Gillian Mackay, Jennifer Buchan.

Joy, anger, and hope: a report on Humanist Society Conference 2023, The Future of Reproductive Rights in Scotland

October 30, 2023

At our annual conference we discussed the future of reproductive rights in Scotland with a brilliant cast of pro-choice speakers. We report on a day full of stories of victory and defeat, moments of joy and anger, lessons learned, and hope for the future.

In her opening remarks at our 2023 conference, Humanist Society Scotland chair Jennifer Buchan quoted Sarah Weddington, who represented Jane Roe in the now-overturned Roe vs Wade case. “It is done now,” Weddington said of the landmark 1973 decision that secured abortion access for women in the USA. “And for as long as the US is the US, it will stay done.” “Yet here we are,” Jennifer reminded us, “the year after Roe Vs Wade did not stay done. A backwards step which has frightening implications for every single one of us, and the women who follow us.”

Isioma Okolo sits in a chair with a microphone to her mouth making a point with arms raised. Gemma and Rachael sit either side of her listening.
Dr. ISIOMA OKOLO SPEAKS DURING OUR ROUNTABLE DISCUSSION. PHOTO JACK DONAGHY

The situation in the USA was, however, just one part of the backdrop to our discussions. On the domestic front, the picture looked totally different, as Gillian Mackay MSP informed us during our first panel. Just that morning, a public consultation had been launched to seek views on her buffer zones bill (the “Abortion Services [Safe Access Zones] [Scotland] Bill”) as it began its passage through the Scottish parliament. There is every reason to believe the bill will soon become law, protecting women from religiously motivated harassment as they seek abortion healthcare across Scotland.

We heard from a stellar cast of pro-choice speakers during our 2023 conference, which explored reproductive rights in Scotland in relation to the global fight for abortion healthcare. They discussed many aspects of reproductive rights in Scotland, from buffer zones and decriminalisation to the role of activism and the need to ensure abortion access up to the legal time-limit. Gillian spoke about the fight to draw up and lodge a safe-access bill robust enough to be enforced across Scotland. Her co-speaker, Lucy Grieve, reflected on the inspiring work of Back Off Scotland, the grassroots organisation which she cofounded with Alice Murray to make the case for safe access.

Gillian Mackay sits at a table with a microphone to her mouth answering a question. She wears an orange jacket and black top. Lucy Grieve sits to her left listening, with hands outstretched. She wears a white long-sleeved shirt with blue woollen Sleeveless jumper.
GillIAN MACKAY MSP (Right) and LUCY GRIEVE DURING OUR FIRST PANEL. PHOTO JACK DONAGHY.

During our second panel, we heard from obstetrics and gynaecology doctor Isioma Okolo and teacher and activist Gemma Clark. Both emphasised the need for education (amongst health professionals as well in the education system) to further the cause of abortion rights. Isioma used a range of statistics and first-hand stories to emphasise how reproductive health outcomes are affected by racial minoritisation and other socio-economic factors. Gemma, meanwhile, gave a personal account of organising creative counter-protests against abortion-clinic harassment.

Dr. Lynsey Mitchell of the University of Strathclyde kicked off our afternoon panel on decriminalisation, giving a historical backdrop to the present fight to fully legalise abortion in Scotland. She discussed Scotland’s historic reliance on common law, and the resulting lack of clarity about when abortion is and is not permissable. Rachael Clarke of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) then spoke in sometimes harrowing detail about the rise in prosecutions of women seeking post-legal-limit abortion healthcare in England and Wales. Rachael also posed the question: what does a successful outcome look like in Scotland and England vis a vis the legal status of abortion? Decriminalisation, after all, does not necessarily ensure safe universal access on the ground.

A group of audience members smile and laugh during our 2023 conference.
AUDIENCE MEMBERS AT OUR 2023 CONFERENCE. PHOTO JACK DONAGHY.

All of our panellists joined us for our final session, responding to a video interview between Maggie Ardiente, a board-member of Humanists International, and our CEO Fraser Sutherland. Lamenting the overturning of Roe Vs Wade, Maggie pointed out that the same groups that spearheaded that crusade are now setting their sights on Europe. Our speakers explored these themes and many others in a lively and multi-faceted closing discussion.

Across the day, attendees had the chance to visit stalls set up by Abortion Rights Scotland, Humanists International, and other organisations. There was also a chance to view a mini pop-up exhibition of pro-choice placards, badges, and flyers lent by Glasgow Women’s Library, including items from Ireland’s Repeal the 8th campaign.

PRO-CHOICE PLACARDS AT THE GLASGOW WOMEN’S LIBRARY POP-UP EXHIBITION. PHOTO JACK DONAGHY.

As Jennifer remarked at the close of our conference, we enjoyed a “full and enlightening day.” We hope it will sow the seeds for further discussion and activism and for progress towards securing safe, legal abortion access across Scotland and the world.

Title image: Our speakers, CEO Fraser Sutherland and chair Jennifer Buchan after our 2023 conference. L-R Fraser, Rachael Clarke, Isioma Okolo, Gemma Clark, Lucy Grieve, Gillian Mackay, Jennifer.

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