The season of Lent begins on 14 February this year. It’s a period of fasting and reflection for many of Scotland’s Christians. But for a minority it’s also a time to gather in large groups outside abortion clinics to harass and intimidate service users. Many of them do so under the banner of “40 Days for Life,” a US-based evangelical campaign that has recently spread to Britain.
We spoke to Alice Murray, co-founder of grassroots group Back Off Scotland, about her own experience of abortion clinic harassment and why we need to support Gillian Mackay MSP’s bill for protest-free buffer zones.
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Alice Murray and I’m the co-founder of Back off Scotland. I started the group with Lucy Grieve in 2020 after we noticed an uptick in protests outside the Chalmers Clinic in Edinburgh. We were both studying at the University of Edinburgh at the time, and it was also the middle of lockdown. I’d had my own experience of encountering protestors when accessing abortion care the previous year, 2019.
Can you tell us a bit more about your experience with anti-abortion protests?
I went for two appointments at the Chalmers and encountered protestors at one of those. I was always very pro-choice and aware that protests went on. But there’s a big difference between seeing them in the street as a passer-by and having it happen to you. I was certain of my decision. It wasn’t like what you sometimes see portrayed in films and TV, this incredibly emotional experience, filled with doubt and regret (though I understand it is like that for some people). But still, seeing the protestors made me feel really uncomfortable and anxious.
If the protestors hadn’t been there I would have been able to reflect on my experience very differently. In the years that followed when I thought back to getting an abortion, I only thought about them.Alice Murray, Back Off Scotland
One of the things that really angered me is how it impacted my feelings and thoughts afterwards. Even though having the abortion wasn’t traumatic or upsetting, it was still a big life decision that I needed to process. If the protestors hadn’t been there I would have been able to reflect on my experience very differently. In the years that followed when I thought back to getting an abortion, I really only thought about them. There was a block on me processing the bit that really mattered. That’s something that people don’t always talk about when we discuss this issue.
Obviously the main goal of our campaign is to get people in the clinic door, to stop these protests preventing healthcare access. But for the people that do go inside, the protests have long-term impacts that are really hard to track. We’ve definitely heard that from other people we’ve spoken to through our campaign.
The main goal of our campaign is to get people in the clinic door, to stop these protests preventing healthcare access. But for the people that do go inside, the protests have long-term impacts that are really hard to track.Alice Murray, Back Off Scotland
How did your experience shape you and how have you learned from others’ experiences?
My experience definitely sparked my desire to co-found Back Off Scotland. And it’s been really good to have someone with lived experience involved in the campaign. But even if that hadn’t happened I would have felt passionately about this issue.
One thing I find really hard is speaking to other people who’ve experienced protests who maybe don’t feel comfortable talking about it. One thing we hear a lot is: “why don’t people make NHS complaints?” Because there’s such a lack of complaints put in. But why on earth would someone who has been exposed to these protests then want to go through an NHS complaints process? That is not where your brain goes. You just want to get on with your life.
People have been prevented from accessing other types of healthcare. The Chalmers Clinic in Edinburgh offers gender-related care as well as abortion care. Plus it’s an STI clinic and it offers smear tests and gynaecology tests.Alice Murray, Back Off Scotland
Why do we need buffer zones?
For many reasons. But the main one is that these protests are a bar to healthcare. When we started this campaign in 2020, when we spoke to people and videoed protestors and brought awareness of the issue, a lot of people were shocked it was still happening. That includes a lot of older people which is interesting. It’s such a simple thing to fix and it could have been solved so long ago. Thinking about the amount of people deterred from accessing abortion care it’s extraordinary.
People have been prevented from accessing other types of healthcare, too. The Chalmers Clinic in Edinburgh offers gender-related care as well as abortion care. Plus it’s an STI clinic and it also offers smear tests and gynaecology tests. There are so many types of appointment that people are potentially not going to or are attending but with this unnecessary layer of stress. The protests also interfere with healthcare workers’ right to do their job in peace.
This isn’t a controversial or militant idea. It’s literally just about moving people away from the clinic doors.Alice Murray, Back Off Scotland
What do you say to people who say the right to free speech is being eroded?
The campaign is very balanced. We do need to make sure that people’s right to protest and hold alternative views is protected. Obviously, I am very pro-choice but I understand that, for many reasons, someone could have the opposing view and we need to protect their right to hold that view. It’s just that this is not the way to do it: standing outside a clinic and acting as a bar to healthcare. This isn’t a controversial or militant idea. It’s literally just about moving people away from the clinic doors.
What’s next for Back Off Scotland?
Well, we need to get buffer zone laws in place first! It’s been a long journey and Lucy and I have been openly frustrated by it at times. We started this campaign in 2020. Now it’s 2024 and we still don’t have buffer zones. Neither of us thought we’d be saying that. But hopefully this year’s protests will be the last.
We want the will for change to stay once buffer zones are secured. We need to keep on having conversations about making abortion care the best it can be across Scotland.Alice Murray, Back Off Scotland
Beyond that, there are a lot of areas of abortion care we feel passionately about. One positive thing about the campaign is that we have opened up a wider conversation. When we went to the abortion care summit held by Nicola Sturgeon in 2022 there were some really nuanced conversations going on. We touched on decriminalisation, ensuring that people in the Highlands and Islands have access to abortion care, and lots of other issues. All of these topics are now on the table because of the discussion around buffer zones.
We want the will for change to stay once buffer zones are secured. We need to keep on having conversations about making abortion care the best it can be across Scotland.
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