The rights of women to choose what happens to their bodies are under attack - Gillian Mackay

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The Covid pandemic has shone a light on the way people access healthcare services, and the need to remove barriers to people getting the help they need.

During the months we were being told to stay at home and procedures were being postponed, video consultations became more widespread and I know many GPs faced tough choices about which patients to see, while some people perhaps did not go and see a doctor when they needed to.

It reminds us that access to healthcare is a right, and the importance of that right has been writ large in the last 18 months.

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It therefore seems obscene that at this time, protesters would choose to launch a campaign to stand outside abortion and sexual health clinics to make accessing these services even more difficult, and Dani Garavelli’s excellent piece for last week’s Scotland on Sunday told the human impact that these protests have on the women trying to access services.

Gillian MacKay MSP. Picture: Michael Gillen/JPIMediaGillian MacKay MSP. Picture: Michael Gillen/JPIMedia
Gillian MacKay MSP. Picture: Michael Gillen/JPIMedia

What was clear is that protests do not need to be loud or physically aggressive to be intimidating. I was particularly struck by the account where a woman explained how the presence of the protestors actually made stages of her abortion “more uncomfortable and upsetting” and how that for those who the decision was a hard one to reach it would be even more traumatising.

“Being prayed at feels sinister and pointed,” she said.

People should not be discouraged from attending medical appointments. Abortion particularly is a time-sensitive issue where a missed appointment can have serious implications.

The US-based organisation 40 Days for Life kicked off a series of ‘vigils’ at Scottish clinics last month and the Back Off Scotland campaign group has shared some pictures of these events, where protesters line the pavement outside clinics with banners warning women they will “regret” their decision to abort. There is little room for social distancing, buggies or wheelchairs.

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It was deeply disappointing to hear an MSP had also attended one of these protests.

Protest that is targeted at preventing often vulnerable people accessing medical treatment cannot claim a moral high ground, and these have no place in healthcare settings.

Now, more than ever, people need to be able to access healthcare services and treatments they need in peace, without the fear of harassment, abuse or judgement.

The notion of “buffer zones” as explored by Scotland on Sunday last week, is a proven method of achieving this. In Australia and Canada, as well as some local authorities in England, these protest-free areas ensure that services are not obstructed.

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I have read how in Ealing, West London, the UK’s first buffer zone around a clinic was won in 2018 after the issue was highlighted by women witnessing this behaviour and organising a petition to Ealing Council. Staff, too had been subject to abuse, sometimes followed to their cars by protesters.

The movement to introduce buffer zones has gathered momentum since. I’m keen to explore how they can work in Scotland. Councils like Ealing can approve such measures with by-laws, but we must explore all options if we are to avoid a postcode lottery where women’s access to services depends on whether a local authority has acted or not.

This week I am leading a debate in parliament which looks at the issue and I am keen to hear from all parties about how we might move this forward. The right to privacy and right to access legal, essential medical services must be protected.

Back Off Scotland was set up just a year ago, but they have been very successful in making their case. The group’s proposal is for 150m buffer zones around abortion services and I think it is important that parliament has time to discuss this.

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The rights of women to choose what happens to their bodies are under attack across the world. In the United States this has been an abrasive debate for decades, enflamed by the polarising political culture of Trumpism.

Despite polls showing a majority support in the US for women’s right to choose, this year Trump-supporting states are moving to restrict abortion at a pace not seen in decades, emboldened by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court.

The state of Texas has already effectively banned abortion from as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, a timescale not recognised by medical science and instead promoted by religious faith groups.

The legacy of Poland’s decision to clamp down on abortion is being felt a year later too, with more women taking risks and fewer women getting prenatal testing.

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In the international context, Scotland has an opportunity to be clear here, and defend the right of women to access healthcare. When it comes to buffer zones, we have come to a point where we can act on this. There needs to be a clear legal position too. Of course, people will always have opposing views, but the right to express those views should not get in the way of someone accessing the medical service they need in Scotland.

Gillian Mackay MSP for Central Scotland, Scottish Greens health spokesperson

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