Scotland has won a historic victory for reproductive rights. The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill has passed by 118 votes to 1, marking the end of a prolonged and tumultuous campaign to ensure that women seeking healthcare are able to do so without fear of harassment or intimidation.

It seems like a lifetime ago that I co-founded Back Off Scotland, a small grassroots campaign that I set up in 2020 with my friend Alice Murray, who had recently been accosted by anti-abortion activists whilst accessing abortion care during our undergraduate degree. Although evidence suggests that these groups have had a presence in Glasgow since the 1990s, I didn’t see them for myself until they started protesting outside Chalmers Centre in Edinburgh during the Covid-19 lockdown in autumn 2020.

When I cast my mind back to that autumn, I remember the isolation and uncertainty that defined those days. Social distancing measures meant that simple pleasures, like meeting friends for coffee, or even going to the university library, became impossible. Yet, amid this, groups of up to 10 people were gathered closely outside the local sexual health clinic protesting against my right to abortion. The irony was stark; while we were all trying to protect each other from the virus, these protestors were willing to compromise our safety and dignity to impose their beliefs. In that moment, I knew something needed to be done to stop this.

Anti-abortion campaigners were holding vigils Scottish hospitalAnti-abortion campaigners were holding vigils outside Scottish hospitals (Image: free)

Inspired by the work of Sister Supporter and BPAS in England, who had successfully campaigned for the introduction of safe access zones through the use of Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) in several local authority areas in England, ‘Back Off Chalmers’ was conceived. We created an Instagram account, and registered a petition with Edinburgh City Council – calling on them to introduce 150 meter harassment-free ‘buffer zones’ around the city’s medical facilities. Overnight, we gained hundreds of followers on Instagram, and over the coming weeks gathered nearly 5,000 signatures on our petition.

Alice soon put her name and face to a story in the press detailing her experience of anti-abortion harassment, and became overwhelmed by the number of messages we were receiving from women across Scotland who had similar stories to tell. Within weeks we renamed our campaign Back Off Scotland, and planned to launch petitions in every local authority area that was affected.

In February 2021, Edinburgh City Council debated our petition and passed the associated motion. A month later I got in contact with a councillor and asked when we could expect the zones to be fully implemented. Unfortunately, it was only at this point that I learned that council motions are not legally binding. Around the same time, our petition to Glasgow City Council was rejected because the council did not believe that they had the powers to legislate on this.

It became clear to us that given the position of both councils, and how widely spread the issue was across Scotland, the government would need to bring in legislation – national, universal, and unequivocal – to ensure that harassment-free access to healthcare could become a reality in Scotland.


The abortion buffer zones Bill in Scotland, explained

What ensued over the following 18 months can be described in no other way than a shameful game of ping pong between the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and the Scottish Government. COSLA maintained that any action taken must be by the Scottish Government, and the Scottish Government maintained that they would only support COSLA to introduce them.

Following the Holyrood election in May 2021, Scotland appointed its first Women’s Health Minister, Maree Todd MSP. We met with Maree shortly after her appointment and came away from the meeting feeling dejected and patronised. Alice and another young woman, Lily, had told the Minister an in-depth account of their experiences and presented the case for national legislation. We were told that she ‘had no magic wand’ to solve the problem, she didn’t want to face a legal challenge because she ‘likes to win’, and most shamefully that ‘sometimes women have to run the gauntlet’.

The Scottish Government held the line on this for over a year, stating that ‘complex legal challenges’ meant that they couldn’t legislate. In 2022 after bringing the issue to then-First-Minister Nicola Sturgeon in a summit that we had called for, the government relented, stating that their preference was now to support national legislation. Following this, Gillian Mackay MSP tabled her Bill in 2023 and the parliamentary process ensued – reaching near-consensus in its final vote last week.

It has been a long process, but I believe that none of this would have been possible had Alice not courageously shared her personal experience in 2020. Alice – still a teenager at this point – shared what is typically a very private experience publicly, which undoubtedly acted as the catalyst to hundreds of women across the country with similar experiences getting in touch to share their story after feeling empowered to speak up because of her.

 Alice Murray and Lucy Grieve have new targets nowAlice Murray and Lucy Grieve have new targets now (Image: free)

The stories that we collected were extremely important in conveying to politicians and the public the impact that these anti-abortion activists were having, and I pay tribute to every single person who shared their story with us. I am proud that their stories featured as such a key component of both the campaign and the development of the law, and think that it is a powerful testament to the strength of our collective voice.

In many ways, 2020 was indeed a lifetime ago. Globally, we’ve lived through a once-in-a-generation pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis, and the return of war to Europe. Politically, we’ve seen three Prime Ministers, three First Ministers, and a Holyrood election. And personally, I’ve completed two degrees, moved to a different city, and got married. We inhabit what feels like a different world to the one in which Back Off Scotland was founded – but our work is not done.

The next priority for us is to continue our campaign to make sure that abortion services are provided locally in Scotland, so that no woman has to make a 1000-mile round trip to England to access care that 1 in 3 of us will need in our lives. We are also looking forward to working with the Scottish Government over the coming months to look at ways in which we can reform Scotland’s archaic abortion law, to make it fit for a 21st century healthcare system.

Lucy Grieve is Back Off Scotland co-founder