Back Off Scotland is a group of ordinary young women who have had enough of fundamentalist Christians staging protests outside abortion clinics. They have persuaded Nicola Sturgeon to back their campaign for exclusion zones around healthcare facilities – a Scottish world first. Neil Mackay meets the women changing history

Lily's story

LILY Roberts was just 18, pregnant and in her first year at Glasgow University when she faced anti-abortion protesters. The experience marked her forever. Outside the city’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Roberts and her partner were confronted by a crowd of 20 religious protesters.

“In a grim way,” Roberts says, “I was almost lucky.” The protesters she faced didn’t scream at her as has happened during other demonstrations, or equate abortion with rape, or say women choose termination to keep “their figure” as has happened outside Glasgow’s Sandyford sexual health clinic where rape survivors receive trauma treatment.

The protesters who confronted Roberts were mostly older men, with placards denouncing abortion as murder or reading “thou shalt not kill”.

To enter the building where she was to have an abortion, Roberts had to walk within touching distance of the group as they prayed at her.

“They were completely unavoidable. I literally had to cross their picket line.”

The experience, which “terrorised” Roberts, led her to become a leading figure in Scotland’s pro-choice movement. She is now one of the most prominent campaigners in Back Off Scotland, a lobby group of young feminists who forced the Scottish Government to meet with them over the issue of anti-abortion protests outside clinics.

Back Off Scotland secured a commitment from Nicola Sturgeon to back “buffer zones” which will establish 150-metre exclusion areas around clinics so women don’t have to “run the gauntlet” of “Christian fundamentalists” at one of the most vulnerable moments of their lives. Scotland would become the first country in the world to establish such protections.

Roberts explains that expectant mothers, women facing problems with their pregnancies over issues like foetal abnormalities, as well as women seeking abortions – “everything that’s gynaecological” – and NHS staff all have to walk past such protests outside hospitals. “People should be able to protest,” she says, “but not outside clinics. It’s threatening.” Roberts has no problem with the protesters demonstrating at Parliament or in public places like Glasgow’s George Square – but says a line must be drawn when it comes to the “harassment” of women accessing healthcare.

At clinics like Glasgow’s Sandyford, members of the public attend for contraception advice, issues related to HIV and other sexual health problems, as well as counselling for rape. They, too, must face protesters – some of whom can be heard screaming from within the clinic, campaigners say.

Roberts says that enduring protesters “calling me a murderer” was traumatising and “intimidating”. At one point, when her partner stepped outside while NHS staff looked after Roberts, protesters approached him and started to “tell him that I didn’t have to do this”.

There was a sense of “inherent misogyny”, Roberts says, in protesters trying to get her boyfriend to tell her what to do. She also felt surveilled as they had clearly worked out why she was there. “It was absolutely horrendous. They’re evidently keeping track of who’s going in and out, and targeting people.”

Roberts says she was in pain that day and the actions of the protesters caused her deep emotional distress. “I was angry, there was so much fear involved. They were in my mind during the procedure. It wasn’t their message that got to me, it was the intimidation caused by their presence. The main thought running through my head was ‘oh gosh, I have to walk right past these people again and God knows what they’re going to do or say’.”

She got a taxi home afterwards and could hear them as she drove away. “You’ve got 20 sets of eyes on you. It’s simply aggressive. There’s a place and time for protest and outside a clinic isn’t it. They’re hurting people. I feel so much for the staff – they’re wonderful people and they go through this every day. It’s awful for them.”

Roberts sent filmed footage to The Herald on Sunday of protesters outside the Sandyford clinic speaking to women in the street. One man holds a placard reading “babies are murdered here” and can be heard asking “why is rape wrong”, and claiming that women “sacrifice their babies” for better “jobs”, “education” and their “figure”.

Roberts struggles to understand how people who identify as Christian – nearly all anti-abortion protesters are religious – show so little empathy towards women at such a vulnerable time in their lives.

“I’d say to them: imagine that was someone you loved going into that clinic, whether they’re working there, continuing their pregnancy, or terminating their pregnancy. Imagine the person you’re shouting at is your mum, your daughter, your best mate. I’d just like to try and tap into whatever empathy might be left, whatever feeling of conscience might be left.”

Lucy’s story

LUCY Grieve is the main political force behind Back Off Scotland. An Edinburgh university graduate, at 25 she is the organisation’s co-founder and it was her tenacity which forced the Scottish Government to get around the table to talk to the campaigners and eventually agree to explore the introduction of buffer zones.

The summit was called just days after America’s Supreme Court reversed the landmark Roe v Wade ruling guaranteeing abortion rights. Nicola Sturgeon has given the Government’s backing to a Members’ Bill by Green MSP Gillian Mackay which would establish buffer zones. Grieve helped found the campaign group while still a student as a result of protests at Edinburgh’s Chalmers sexual health clinic. Campaigners quickly heard from women in other Scottish cities that similar protests were ongoing in their areas and set up a national organisation to counter demonstrations.

The largest protest in Scotland, says Grieve, took place outside Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital involving 250 demonstrators. Other protests featured up to 100 people, but some can be as small as just a handful. Protesters pray – sometimes loudly – and hold placards. Some signs feature comments like “Abortion is a silent Holocaust, it is global genocide” and images of dead babies.

“Some stories we hear are just horrible,” Grieve says. “One woman told us that she had a much longed-for pregnancy but found out at 20 weeks that the baby wasn’t viable. She said she’d literally passed her hopes and dreams into a bedpan then came outside and had to see pictures of mutilated foetuses on placards. A number of women have PTSD from these protests.”

There are 10 “targeted sites” around Scotland, Grieve explains, including Aberdeen, Dundee, Falkirk, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Kilmarnock. “There’s untold harm happening,” she adds.

Some anti-abortion groups are well-funded, with American Christian fundamentalist backers. Back Off Scotland has been hit with threats of legal action for highlighting the abuse women suffer. The campaign also gets constant threats and online hate. One –written entirely in capital letters – called the women “vile” and “baby murderers”, and said they “condone the crushing of a skull and delimbing a live baby”.

Grieve says: “We’ve heard from women who have been sexually assaulted that they were called murderers while going to clinics for trauma treatment. Some of them are minors as well.” One health worker at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital had an abortion before joining the NHS, and has to face protesters regularly at work. “She comes home and cries,” Grieve adds. Protesters can be heard inside neonatal units where babies are on life-support machines, and parents are in profound distress, campaigners say. “When we started this we didn’t realise the scale of how many people were being affected.” The overwhelming feeling from targeted women is “how dare these people inscribe their politics onto my body”.

Some protesters who have picketed at clinics have also demonstrated at Pride events for the LGBT community. Although some of the larger anti-abortion groups are well-funded with international links, others centre around just one church and can be hard to pin down in terms of where they are from and who they are connected to or funded by. They often change tactics, too, targeting one clinic for short periods then disappearing and reemerging at another site. Back Off Scotland, however, is open about its links, and works with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

One anti-abortion organisation, Alliance Defending Freedom, is designated a “hate group” by the extremist monitoring organisation the Southern Poverty Law Centre in America. It is also anti-LGBT, and reportedly has both close ties to the Trump administration and between 2017/19 spent £410,000 in Britain. It opposes buffer zones and says it’s a “faith-based legal organisation that … promotes inherent human dignity”.

Back Off Scotland has just a few hundred pounds in the bank.

Christian fundamentalists in Scotland now “feel emboldened after Roe v Wade”, says Grieve. The Catholic Church takes a leading role in the anti-abortion movement both worldwide and at home. One bishop called buffer zones “no-prayer zones”. The Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh released a statement on Twitter saying “the Scottish Parliament is considering a bill to criminalise public prayers” and called on supporters to “respond and stop this”.

Back Off Scotland is aware it is taking on one of the most powerful, well-resourced and wealthy organisations on Earth when it comes to the Catholic Church. Many pro-choice feminists, however, point to the fact that it is an organisation run by celibate men that is telling women what do to with their bodies.

Grieve insists the campaign isn’t about “stopping prayer”, but stopping harassment of women outside clinics. There doesn’t need to be a clash between protesters’ rights to freedom of speech and women’s right to be free from harassment and access healthcare with privacy, she says. Both can be accommodated by using buffer zones.

Back Off Scotland hasn’t tried to win political friends. Rather, campaigners have simply demanded that the SNP acts to protect women. “We’ve been holding Government to account,” says Grieve. “We haven’t tip-toed around. We’ve said ‘this needs done, it hasn’t been done, whoever is responsible needs to get it done’.” The result of playing hardball was a commitment from Nicola Sturgeon to support the campaign.

Grieve has no doubt the buffer zone bill will pass, but expects a legal challenge over issues like freedom of religion, assembly, or speech. However, lawyers are working on the legislation and it is expected to be watertight. Grieve thinks the law should be passed by summer next year, or “worst-case scenario” winter 2023.

She feels the extremism of some protestoes has resulted in Scotland’s anti-abortion movement “shooting itself in the foot”. Grieve adds: “If anyone, ranging from women going for cervical smear tests to rape survivors are being terrified, then this just can’t go on.” She questions why harassment laws haven’t been used more to move protesters. Focusing on the rights of protesters means authorities “aren’t thinking about the rights of women”.

Regardless of Sturgeon’s support, campaigners are uncomfortable with the SNP given the position of some nationalist politicians on abortion. Most prominent is the Glasgow MSP John Mason. He has said he is “pretty positive” about the US Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade ruling, and doesn’t see “any great need” for buffer zones. He has commented: “One of the arguments for these vigils, or protests, is that women should have the opportunity to hear there is two sides.” Sturgeon says she “vehemently” disagrees with Mason. Grieve also pointed to positions taken by UK Conservative MPs such as Jeremy Hunt and Nadine Dorries which undermine women’s reproductive rights. Jacob Rees-Mogg opposes abortion entirely – even for rape and incest.

Back Off Scotland feels that the attack on abortion rights is linked to attacks on LGBT rights, particularly the trans community. “When one set of rights is under attack, it’s a slippery slope to all rights being under attack,” Grieve adds. “Politically, we’re in uncharted waters.” It is no longer in doubt, she feels, that there will be attempts to limit abortion in Britain eventually. Meanwhile, in America, the move against abortion means “women will die, some women will have to go back to using coat hangers”.

“We’re lucky to have a First Minister who is a feminist,” says Grieve. “But there’s no guarantee that’ll always be the case. That’s scary.”

Men who support women’s rights need to speak up and tell “the men trying to control women to shut up and sit down”. If it was men who got pregnant, she points out, the discussion would be entirely different.

Technically, even though British women can access abortion – with the consent of two doctors – the legal right to termination isn’t guaranteed in law. Back Off Scotland wants that right enshrined so any future threat is curtailed.

Campaigners found their interactions with Women’s Health Minister Maree Todd “unhelpful” in the early stages of lobbying the Government. “She called us ‘girls’ and said ‘sometimes you have to run the gauntlet’. Two of the women speaking to her had already run a gauntlet on their way to access abortion.” Todd’s initial response was “no” to national buffer zones, Grieve said. That made any Government support for women feel “performative”. However, the approach changed completely when “Nicola Sturgeon took the reins. It was frustrating and disappointing, but Maree Todd now supports buffer zones”.

In response, Todd told The Herald on Sunday that the “Government is committed to introducing buffer zones”, that women must be able to access abortion “without fear of harassment or intimidation”, and that to enable “swiftest progress” she is looking “at using local bylaws to establish buffer zones in advance of national legislation”. Grieve said no Scottish health board offers abortion up to the legal limit and so women are travelling to England. “The lack of provision is shocking and scandalous. I honestly don’t know what the Scottish Government has been doing.”

Churches, she adds, need to consider that “women will die without access to safe, legal abortion”. She says: “To call abortion ‘unholy’ and pass judgment gives no thought to women’s personal circumstances, or a mother’s life or mental health. It’s anti-women. It’s quite rich that people who bang on about their own rights don’t give a second thought to the rights of others.”

Alice’s story

IT was 2019 and Alice Murray was a 20-year-old student at Edinburgh University when she became pregnant and went to the Chalmers clinic in the city for an abortion. “They were there outside,” she says. “I guess I was lucky, there were only seven of them this time. They had signs with the standard stuff – ‘babies are murdered here’, ‘pray to end abortion’. It clouded the experience very badly for me. I’m still angry. They made it feel political, dark and shameful.”

Her experiences led Murray to co-found Back Off Scotland and she now gathers evidence highlighting the worst and most intimidating behaviour by protesters.

Protests have been getting progressively worse and more frequent over the last four years, she says. “It’s in tune with the Trump timeline,” Murray adds. “People in Scotland think we’ll never be in the same situation as America, that it would never get that bad here. It can. We can’t be complacent – complacency is complicity. Things are getting much more extremist. It’s a scary time for women. People talk about two sides of the abortion debate. One side, the anti-abortion side, has a lot of money and legal power. The other, people like us, have nothing. If you talk about cancel culture – it’s the anti-abortionists who are trying to cancel people. We’ve been threatened with legal action.”

Murray says it’s baffling that the Scottish Government has only recently started to think about protecting women trying to access abortion services. “We’re young and we won’t take no for an answer – that’s why we’ve got so far with this campaign,” she adds. “I’m glad politicians have finally listened to us, but it’s not good at all that it took this increase in the protests for them to finally take notice.”

As long as there are no buffer zones outside clinics, there is every chance patients trying to access sexual health services will be too intimidated to cross protest lines. “We need action,” Murray says. “The delay is unacceptable. In the time it takes for this to become law, the protests will get worse as they know they might not be here next year and they’ll be angry.”

Once their campaign to establish buffer zones is safely passed into law, all three campaigners plan future careers working to protect reproductive rights. “There’s just so much work that still needs done,” says Murray. “There are too many threats for anyone to pause.”