Buffer zones: The next logical step
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
With the overturning of Roe v Wade earlier this year, it is no doubt that pro-life groups have been given momentum, with a dangerously increasing number of protests seen outside Scottish abortion clinics this year. Pro-life groups span from university to international organisations with examples such as the international group 40 Days for Life, the nationwide campaign Compassion Scotland, and university-wide society Edinburgh Life Society. Not only do these groups vehemently oppose and want to criminalise abortions, but they also promote dangerous misinformation to justify their anti-choice agenda.
The issue of spreading misinformation has come to light more recently with the implementation of buffer zones in Scotland. The Edinburgh Life Society posted a Facebook statement with a link to a petition titled ‘Protect the Freedom to Pray in Scotland’ which was rife with misinformation about buffer zones, twisting them into an issue of censorship. According to the petition, buffer zones are ‘not founded in fact, but instead out of the desire to silence the pro-life position’ and would make ‘silent prayer near an abortion clinic illegal’. In reality, ‘silent prayer’ would remain legal since freedom of religion is not at all affected by the implementation of buffer zones. Compassion Scotland, a campaign in opposition to buffer zones, refers to them as ‘censorship zones’ and uses the false justification that ‘there were no recorded incidents of intimidation or harassment at thirteen different locations between 2016 and 2021’. BBC Disclosure debunked this claim finding 35 reports within the 5 years, alongside countless testimonies of people and staff who have experienced harassment, outlining their discomfort, anger, feelings of insecurity and vulnerability when confronting these ‘peaceful protests’. Problems arise with this misinformation in conversations around buffer zones because their implementation is essential to uphold safe accessibility to abortions.
So, what exactly are buffer zones?
Buffer zones are 150m perimeter safe access zones around abortion clinics that prevent any form of pro-life or pro-choice activity from taking place within the area. They are already successfully implemented in Australia, Canada, and some areas in England.
The overturning of Roe v Wade was a concerning setback for vital reproductive rights; in Scotland right now, progression should be the main priority, and buffer zones are the next step to ensure access to abortion is protected. The decision to have an abortion is often not easy and attending these clinics can be an incredibly traumatising experience, putting those seeking an abortion in states of heightened emotional vulnerability. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Buffer zones can protect pregnant people from the bombardment and intimidation of pro-life stigma, medical misinformation, religious rhetoric, and feelings of guilt and shame that are often thrown at them on their way in. No matter what pro-life groups use as a justification for their resistance to buffer zones, it is necessary to understand that buffer zone implementation is an act to ensure safe abortion access and not an act to limit free speech.
Concerningly, these organisations have a huge amount of support. The Texas based organisation, 40 Days for Life, has reached out to Scottish pro-life groups to aid financially and organisationally in the movement against buffer zone implementation. 40 Days for Life is a highly concerning organisation describing themselves as ‘The Beginning of the End of Abortion’ and whose website features a horrifying live count of the number of ‘lives they have saved’, abortion clinics they have supposedly closed and abortion workers they have forced to quit. This month, there was an ongoing ‘peaceful prayer vigil’ organised by 40 Days for Life outside of Edinburgh Chalmers Centre. This campaign, which took place in a number of Scottish cities including Edinburgh, lasted from September 28th, a morbid mark of International Safe Abortion day, to November 6th. This protest caused significant amounts of emotional harm and stress, causing a woman to suffer a panic attack when attending the clinic as protesters blocked disabled parking spots and harassed her with ‘gaslighting and bullying’. This individual called the protesters, ‘a real threat to the physical and mental health of all patients and staff’. It is undeniably clear that buffer zones are needed now more than ever – it is the only viable method of tackling these persistent and intimidating anti-abortion protesters.
It is also important to recognise the source of support that the Edinburgh Life Society receives from within the University. To set up a society, the student association has a rigorous multi-step application and re-registration process. The Edinburgh Life Society has been approved every year and allowed to run concerning events such as talks titled ‘My Body, My Choice? – the role pressure and coercion play in the decision to have an abortion’ and ‘No Choice? – Poverty & pregnancy in Edinburgh today’. Their freshers fair stall displayed leaflets titled ‘Abortion and Coercion’ which the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) uses to perpetuate the narrative that most abortions are made out of force and not choice – when, in reality, people have a plethora of reasons why they choose to have an abortion. Recently, the Edinburgh Life Society caused further controversy with outraged students who felt disgust and discomfort at anti-abortion activity being held in university buildings, with its talk ‘My Body, My Choice?’ held on campus by a speaker from the SPUC. The university has refused to comment on the situation; this silence is telling. The University of Edinburgh has allowed the society to operate for over a decade, it now needs to be held accountable for its complicity with their anti-abortion activity.
Now more than ever, we need to protect the basic right to abortion free from harassment and intimidation and therefore, it is crucial to remember that buffer zones are an issue of access and not an issue of restricting free speech, protest or thought. We need institutional systems, like the university, which have the power to enact meaningful change, to break their silence and actively speak out against these pro-life organisations. Ultimately, misinformation poses a threat to the progression towards an ideal future where access to abortion is an unhindered, convenient, and stress-free process accessible to all, and where the pregnant person’s autonomy is the main priority.