YOU could almost hear the sharp intake of breath across the nation when Glasgow Shettleston MSP John Mason commented that abortions are “seldom essential or vital”, and that healthcare clinics “push abortions without laying out the pros and cons”.

A devout Christian, Mason, of the SNP, is no stranger to controversy, having previously raised hackles on issues such as gay sex and transgender identity. His inflammatory rhetoric does not, however, mean his opinion can be lightly dismissed. There are many who share his views, and are not shy of promoting them.

Mason’s statements were prompted by his support of anti-abortion vigils at the gates of Glasgow hospitals and clinics, one of which he attended. While there are increasingly urgent attempts to prohibit such activity, with MSP Monica Lennon asking Police Scotland to break up vigils under the Public Order Act, so far they continue unopposed.

For a woman about to undergo this procedure, there can be few more distressing experiences than running a gauntlet of prayerful pro-life activists bearing posters and placards. These carry proclamations such as “women do regret abortion” and “love them both: abortion kills one and hurts another”. Mason describes these messages as “very gentle and offering help”.

Lennon begs to differ. “It is worrying,” she says, “that prayer is being used as a fig leaf to intimidate women.”

She’s right. In this context prayer is nothing less than a weapon of manipulation and coercion. The clear intention of these activists is to terminate terminations. Their form of “help” is to persuade pregnant women to change their minds and keep the baby. They might do so quietly and sweetly but, regardless of how well-meaning their intervention, the act of waylaying people at the eleventh hour and challenging them to rethink is unquestionably a form of harassment.

How would voters feel if, on the steps of the polling station, they were besieged or harangued by an electioneer, urging them to reconsider how they filled in their ballot paper? There would be a national outcry. But when it’s women – some of whom are barely older than girls – whose most personal and difficult decision is under public scrutiny, hardly a voice is raised.

Make no mistake. This is not because anybody thinks the anti-abortionists have every right to accost patients. It’s far more basic than that. For most people, the manner in which these women are treated, and the ordeal this represents, simply does not matter.

Just imagine it. Bad enough crossing a picket line, with aggressive and vituperative strikers; it’s a thousand times worse braving a reception committee of self-styled do-gooders on the way to a clinic, all of them imploring you to switch lanes.

Last month one such gathering outside the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow was over 100-strong. Even the least sensitive member must have been aware that such a number – mob might be a better word – would alarm and threaten any woman obliged to pass them.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the daunting sight of this crowd prevented some from entering the building and accessing the care they required. Doubtless that was the pro-lifers’ aim, but what would count as a victory for their cause is a sinister denial of every woman’s hard-won legal right to choose whether or not to keep a pregnancy.

It hardly needs to be said that very few take this decision lightly. Maybe some are heedless, reckless, or unmoved by the implications of what they are doing. For the overwhelming majority, however, the choice is agonising, despite how clear-cut the decision might seem. Even with pregnancies resulting from rape there can be hesitation and soul-searching over the best thing to do.

When she finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy, a woman endlessly weighs up the competing interests of her own situation and that of the child she might bear. Either that or, if she is very young, she might be in denial, not seeking help or advice until the pregnancy is obvious to everyone, and her options running out.

Nobody likes the idea of abortion. The unborn child is the most vulnerable member of society, deserving of the utmost care. Yet in this far from perfect world there are times when the welfare of the mother-to-be has to come first.

As the wise and much-missed moral philosopher Mary Warnock reflected, in the end the quality of life of the living is the priority.

Most women dread finding themselves in a situation where a termination might be necessary, knowing they must live with their consciences for the rest of their days. Yet access to abortion is a fundamental right in any society that wants to be called civilised. The legally enshrined prerogative to control their own fertility is a signal that women are treated with respect. If they are not granted reproductive rights then all their other rights amount to very little; in any meaningful sense they do not have equality with men.

Obviously those whose religious beliefs prohibit them from accessing such medical provision are entitled to their views. It is for them to act in a way that meets the demands of their faith, and to live according to its directives. What they are not entitled to do is to deter others from acting in the way they deem best.

Given the vocal resistance to abortion, which seems to be intensifying, and the authorities’ reluctance to curb pro-life vigils, it seems evident that many institutions – notably the law and religious organisations – remain deeply patriarchal and misogynistic.

Is it any coincidence that the furore around vigils comes at the same time that the US Supreme Court appears to be on the cusp of overturning the case of Roe v Wade? That landmark legal judgement, in 1973, upheld women’s right to choice “without excessive government restriction”. In so doing it swept away draconian bans on terminations across half of the country.

In what will prove a dark day for democracy, it now seems likely that a swathe of illiberal states will soon be able to outlaw terminations as they see fit. In no time it’ll be a return to the good old days of backstreet abortionists, abandoned infants, and a rising death toll of mothers and babies. There’s more than a whiff of The Handmaid’s Tale about all of this.

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