Kate Forbes delivers a talk on a stage with blue curtains behind her, wearing a teal dress and holding papers.

Kate Forbes and the return of anti-abortion politics

December 5, 2023

Kate Forbes’s latest comments on buffer-zone legislation have us wondering: what has changed in our culture to allow voices like hers to thrive?

At the end of last month, Kate Forbes MSP gave an interview with the Catholic news outlet Sancta Familia. (Ms Forbes, an anti-abortion member of the evangelical Free Church of Scotland, came within a whisker of becoming our national leader this spring.) Speaking from her Holyrood office, she suggested rules to protect people from harassment whilst entering abortion clinics were potentially “illiberal.” She added that “you cannot ban prayer.” Laws to create protest-free “buffer zones” around abortion facilities are likely to pass through Holyrood next year, making harassment of service users within that space illegal, including through so-called “prayer vigils.” (You can respond to a live consultation on the bill here.)

On this point, we stand with our allies at Back Off Scotland, a grassroots group that has done much to spearhead the movement for buffer zones. Back Off has gathered extensive first-hand testimony from brave women and trans and non-binary people, making clear that silent protest can be just as traumatic as vocal encounters. And liberal rights to free speech, thought, and expression do not extend to the right to bully, intimidate, and harass others at vulnerable moments in their lives. Defending this kind of harassment thus speaks either of bad faith or ignorance.

We are living at a time when reproductive rights seem more vulnerable than they have for decades.

But just now, we’re thinking about the wider context in which Ms. Forbes feels buoyed in promoting anti-abortion protests (and other subjects such as LGBT+ rights). We are living at a time when reproductive rights seem more vulnerable than they have for decades. The most obvious example of this at a global level can be found in the USA. Even as buffer-zone legislation passes through Holyrood, our allies in North America are dealing with the fallout from Roe Vs Wade’s rescindment.

Sounds far away, right? But powerful North-American groups who were part of the campaign to remove abortion rights domestically have recently extended their reach into Scotland and Europe. Anti-abortion group the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) now has a UK wing and can be found debating issues such as abortion rights on mainstream news outlets. Kate Forbes’s political break, an internship with another SNP MSP, was funded by an anti-abortion Christian lobby group that doesn’t disclose its financial backers.

A rally against the overturning of Roe V Wade in Melbourne, Australia. A group of people shout and cheer and one in the middle holds up a sign reading "Abortion is a human right."

Powerful North-American groups who were part of the campaign to remove abortion rights in the USA have recently extended their reach into Scotland and Europe

Image Matt Hrkac/Creative Commons

We also need to consider the impact of culture-war politics at a UK level. As the ruling conservative party loses its footing in the polls, fringe factions are gaining power, as the PM and his allies look for any route back to popularity. MPs with anti-abortion views have been handed positions of authority over the past 12 months. Recently departed home secretary Suella Braverman has been accused of deliberately delaying the roll-out of recently passed buffer-zone laws in England and Wales.

This may represent cynical opportunism. But it has created a culture in which genuine anti-choice sentiment is normalised. At this year’s National Conservatism Conference, MP Miriam Cates, who has voted consistently against abortion-rights measures, described falling birth-rates as “the overarching threat to…western society.” In November, three “pro-life” members’ bills were introduced in the House of Lords. These seek to shrink the time limit within which abortion is legal, define foetuses as sentient beings, and reduce access to at-home abortion care. None are likely to gain support but they speak of a culture of resurgent Christian evangelism within UK politics.

Cynical opportunism has created a culture in which anti-choice sentiment is normalised.

This shift in the discourse correlates with, and perhaps even contributes to, worrying trends on the ground. Women across the UK suddenly find themselves at hugely increased risk of prosecution under archaic abortion laws. While the reasons for this are unclear, it reflects the need to properly decriminalise abortion in Scotland and the UK.

Humanism is a secular worldview. It involves defending the right of people such as Kate Forbes to hold Christian values and to speak to them in the public sphere. It also means working constructively with them within democratic frameworks. But, by definition, secularism cannot support the imposition of religious dogma on others. Kate Forbes’s ongoing pronouncements on issues such as abortion suggest that Christian evangelism might steer her policymaking were she ever to gain significant authority. One danger is that, with culture wars raging and reactionary religious sentiment increasingly tolerated, the Scottish public might not think hard enough about the consequences of handing anti-abortion politicians the reigns of power in future.

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Title image c. GD Steam/Creative Commons

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