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‘I thought abortion protests only happened in America’

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Lily Roberts was 18 years old and had only lived in Glasgow for six months when she faced intimidation and harassment as she attempted to attend her abortion at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital.

She was met, at 7am on the day of her scheduled appointment, with “around 15 to 20 protesters holding banners and giving me the classic tropes that abortion is murder” – a spectacle she found “frightening for a woman essentially going to a medical appointment”.

Ms Roberts, now 22, felt there was “an element of surveillance” to the protesters, adding that the anti-abortion campaigners were “trying to keep tables on who is accessing services”.

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She said: “The maternity ward at the hospital encompasses tonnes of different procedures, not just abortions – not to mention the staff just going to work in the building.

“There was a very small bit of pavement where protesters chose to congregate so I was faced with an unavoidable picket line.

“They had tonnes of banners and it was really a very unavoidable and scary presence.”

READ MORE: Scottish buffer zones to be rolled out ‘as quickly as possible’

She added: “The procedure was quite a difficult thing to access as it was, but then the fear that was created was pretty terrifying. I thought this sort of thing only happened in America, not in Scotland. There seems to be an element of confidence inspired from America.

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“At the Sandyford clinic there are two particular men who bring megaphones and they just scream.”

Pleas for buffer zones to halt protests directly outside medical facilities offering abortions were first made four years ago at a local level – with council officers holding their hands up and insisting they were powerless to act.

Cosla, which represents Scottish councils, has also distanced itself from plans.

For women attempting to access appointments and campaigners from Back Off Scotland, progress on buffer zones has been a long process.

Back in 2018, Greens councillor Claire Miller asked council officials in Edinburgh whether buffer zones could be introduced outside the Chalmers Centre in the capital in response to a growing number of protests and “vigils” outside the NHS facility.

But officers warned that they did not have the powers to act, despite Ealing Council in London becoming the first local authority in the UK to use anti-social behaviour laws to create buffer zones outside abortion clinics – using legislation and powers available in England.

Ms Miller spoke out about the frustration felt by campaigners with the fight eventually being taken on by her Greens colleague Gillian Mackay after being elected to Holyrood last year.

In May of this year, Ms Mackay indicated her intention to table a members’ bill at Holyrood, despite initial scepticism from SNP minister over whether national legislation was appropriate or competent.

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Nicola Sturgeon sent a message her government supported the principle of buffer zones by chairing a summit on the issue in Edinburgh in June.

Ms Mackay said she understood the frustration from campaigners but issued a warning that plans for Scotland are still in their infancy – with draft legislation still to be formally drawn up.

In September, Texas-based anti-abortion group 40 Days for Life, launched 40 days of protests outside medical facilities that provide abortion services –targeting facilities in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and Falkirk.

Lucy Grieve, co-founder of Back Off Scotland, said: “This Supreme Court case is not about buffer zones as a premise – instead it is about the legal minutiae of the law passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“To put it simply, the bill states that there is no reasonable excuse for standing at a clinic entrance and trying to convince a woman not to access medical care.

“We believe this is right – this is not protest, it’s not a matter of free speech – and that it’s about the ability of women to access legal, essential healthcare without fear of harassment.

“We’re confident that it will be significant in forming as robust a bill as possible here in Scotland.”

40 Days For Life was contacted for comment.

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