Scotland's abortion clinic protests: Police should use breach of the peace law to break them up – Susan Dalgety
I am a great believer in free speech. The right to freely express ideas and opinions should be the bedrock of any society.
But not when groups use that freedom to intimidate others. The ‘40 days for life’ group – which claims it is the world’s largest grassroots movement to end abortion – has once again embarked on a campaign of intimidation against women seeking a termination.
For nearly six weeks, until November 6, members of the group will stand in protest outside the entrance to sexual health clinics across Scotland. Here in Edinburgh, they are picketing the Chalmers Centre, skulking near the entrance in accusatory silence, their presence and their placards designed to terrorise women who are seeking medical advice.
The protestors are entitled to their point of view. They believe in the sanctity of life, and that the termination of a pregnancy is akin to child murder.
It is a minority view, with the majority of Scots content with the 1967 abortion legislation that gave women and girls rights over their own bodies. But it is their sincerely held belief, and I am happy to defend their inalienable right to express it – publicly as well as in private.
But ‘40 days for life’ – an American organisation – want to go much further than simply state an opinion. Their website makes clear that their protests outside health clinics are designed to get women and health workers to “repent”.
Thanks to the efforts of campaign groups like Back Off Scotland, the Scottish Government has finally seen sense on this issue and will now back a Green MSP’s private members bill which will safeguard access to clinics.
Gillian Mackay’s bill will take months to get through the legislative process. In the meantime, women – at one of the most vulnerable times of their lives – will continue to face intimidation when they seek medical attention.
Breach of the peace is a vague catch-all legal term, but since a 2010 change in the law, there has been a statutory offence of disorderly conduct. The law states that if a person’s actions towards another cause fear or alarm, they may have committed an offence.
Using the law to stifle free speech is risky, and can lead to some very stupid decisions, particularly in the heat of the moment, as we saw during the Queen’s funeral procession in Edinburgh when a young man was arrested for heckling Prince Andrew.
But the law is there for a reason – to stop people deliberately causing others fear or alarm. The ‘40 days’ protesters set out to intimidate women seeking medical help. That is the only reason they stand outside the entrance of sexual health clinics, instead of picketing the parliament or even the HQ of NHS Lothian.
Earlier this year, as the first ‘40 days’ vigil came to an end, it culminated in 100 protestors outside the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.
But even a handful of protestors could be enough to frighten women already in a state of distress. Surely it’s time the police put a stop to this type of protest.