It Could Soon Be a Crime to Gather Outside of Abortion Facilities in Scotland, Even For Prayer

A gathering of the 40 Days for Life campaign will take place near Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow from Feb. 22 through April 2.

Congresswoman América Rangel of Mexico City.
Congresswoman América Rangel of Mexico City. (photo: Official América Rangel website)

The pro-life advocates gathering near abortion facilities in Scotland insist they are trying to help women, not intimidate them, while their critics seek to pass legislation for a “buffer zone” in which such peaceful demonstrations are banned.

“We’re not there to hit people over the head with a Bible. We’re there to pray and offer help if somebody wants the help, if they come up to us,” Robert Colquhoun, director of international campaigns for 40 Days for Life, told Sky News.

“We have graceful conversations with passers-by. We’re simply standing there praying, and it’s been a very fruitful vigil,” he said.

A gathering of the 40 Days for Life campaign will take place near Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow from Feb. 22 through April 2. Similar vigils first began in Texas in 2007 and have taken place in Glasgow for eight years.

Such gatherings could soon be illegal. Member of Scottish Parliament Gillian Mackay, the Scottish Greens health spokesperson, is among the sponsors of a bill to create a zone of 150 meters, about 492 feet, in which abortion protests are banned.

Mackay said that the 40 Days for Life gathering will be “a 40-day gauntlet of harassment,” according to Sky News.

“It is utterly unacceptable and has no place in a modern and progressive Scotland,” she said.

“These protests are a disgraceful attempt to intimidate people out of accessing health care,” Mackay said. “Some of the protesters carry very graphic banners and other protests have seen loudspeakers and megaphones.”

However, a 40 Days for Life briefing packet for Glasgow city councilors rejects claims that its gatherings at the hospital display “graphic images of abortion.”

“Only signs such as ‘Pregnant? We care. We will help you’ are held up at [Queen Elizabeth University Hospital] and the image of a six-month baby in the womb is displayed at the Royal Infirmary as you would find in any pregnancy magazine,” said the briefing, a copy of which Colquhoun sent to CNA.

Some critics of the gatherings objected to pro-life advocates’ display of any images of unborn babies in the womb, BBC News reported in September 2022.

Hundreds gather for a prayerful vigil outside of a Glasgow abortion facility. 40 Days for Life Glasgow

Hundreds gather for a prayerful vigil outside of a Glasgow abortion facility. 40 Days for Life Glasgow

Another defender of 40 Days for Life gatherings is Michael Robinson, executive director of public affairs and legal services for the U.K.-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.

“Those who turn up near to the locations where abortions are carried out, to offer prayer and help, do so with the greatest compassion and sensitivity,” he told CNA Feb. 22.

“I know the hospital in Glasgow very well and for anyone to suggest that the location where people stand to pray could in any way invade someone’s privacy or intimidate anyone is completely preposterous. The vigil in Glasgow is many hundreds of yards from any entrance to the buildings, and they cannot even see who is entering the hospital building from where they are positioned.”

The 40 Days for Life briefing said its Glasgow groups do not call those entering or leaving the hospital “murderers,” nor do they harass or shout abusive names at women. They do not create noise disturbances, stand on hospital grounds, or block hospital access. They also do not approach members of the public, patients, or hospital staff and only engage if approached first.

“Sometimes the group has encountered abuse, in which case they remain silent,” the briefing said. The groups can provide contact cards to those seeking an alternative to abortion and support for mothers and babies including baby items, clothing, and diapers.

“Those present are compelled to conduct themselves peacefully and respectfully and have to sign a Statement of Peace,” the briefing said. “Members would be invited to leave the vigil if they were not willing to comply with this statement in every respect.”

The briefing cited testimony from a woman known by the pseudonym “Natasha.” She was in the treatment room for an abortion and decided not to proceed, despite the abortion doctor’s anger. She met pro-life advocates outside and took some leaflets from them.

“So when things got really hard and I needed someone to talk to, I called and start[ed] talking to a lady called Aileen,” she said. “After all this I was able to have my bouncing baby boy. So cute, hairy, and gorgeous, so blessed to have him. Can’t stop looking at him.”

Mackay’s bill to ban pro-life gatherings near abortion facilities has backing from the Scottish government, the British Medical Association (Scotland), and the Royal College of GPs, Sky News reported.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had pledged to support the buffer zone legislation, but Sturgeon resigned from office last week and the Scottish National Party will soon vote on her replacement.

Lucy Grieve, co-founder of the group Back Off Scotland, which supports the buffer zone, said Sturgeon’s resignation set back expectations the legislation would pass soon. Her group is now seeking support from the candidates running for first minister.

“We believe the issue is apolitical but comments made by candidates in recent days have been quite shocking and raise the concern of potential backpedaling on what has been previously discussed,” Grieve told the news site Glasgow Live.

Grace Browne, communications director at the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, told CNA the proposed buffer zones would be “a major blow to freedom of speech.”

“The protection in international human rights law around freedom of speech, assembly, and expression is robust — and to dismantle these would be an incomprehensible overreach of power,” she said.

“If pro-abortion campaigners are truly worried about reaffirming women’s choices, they would not be trying to remove the chance to receive help to continue a pregnancy,” Browne added. “That would be truly anti-women.”

“Pro-life vigils exist to offer support to vulnerable women,” she said, stressing the need for positive support for pregnant women, especially those who are economically deprived.

“To not be present near abortion facilities would mean abandoning those women. For women who feel coerced or pressured into an abortion, pro-life vigils can be the last opportunity to provide alternative choices,” Browne continued. “The heartbreaking reality is that many women are pressured or coerced in some way into an abortion decision. The pressure to have an abortion can come from friends, family, partners, or employers.”

Robinson said that the vigils “offer a last glimmer of support for women who need somewhere else to turn when they have otherwise been made to feel abortion is their only option.”

“It is troubling that when it comes to pro-life issues, basic human rights are to be trampled on,” he said. “The intolerant ideologues pushing for buffer zones seem only to support freedoms for those who agree with them. The efforts in this instance are clearly aimed at removing people’s right to assembly. That is completely at odds with basic civil liberties and is completely neglectful of women who want an alternative to abortion.”

The U.K. Parliament in Westminster is considering similar legislation for England and Wales and localities in England have passed buffer zone legislation. Several people have faced legal charges for praying near an abortion facility in a buffer zone in violation of local law.