First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (Photo by Jane Barlow - Pool/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Sturgeon’s shoddy summit

Buffer zones are at odds with basic civil liberties

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon held a second “summit” this week on one of the most censorious policy ideas that Scotland has seen yet. 

For the second time, she forgot to invite anyone who might disagree. 

As they had already done in June, the Scottish government gathered together stakeholders to discuss “buffer zones” around abortion facilities. This policy is championed as a solution for harassment against women. 

One in five women who have abortions do so under coercion

I absolutely condemn harassment against women. Fortunately, harassment is already illegal. Breaching an anti-harassment order can land you in a Scottish jail for two years. 

In lieu of newly criminalising harassment, then, the unintended consequences of “buffer zones” are severe restrictions on fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, assembly and religion. They would even criminalise silent, internal prayer on public streets, creating a real “thought crime” in Scotland that falls straight out of the pages of 1984. 

I would have explained this perspective at this week’s meeting, had my invite not been lost in the post. After the first “summit” in June, I had to resort to telling all this to the BBC instead. The show — BBC Scotland’s “The Nine” — had been carefully balanced. Gillian Mackay MSP, who had proposed a private members bill for the buffer zone policy, spoke in support.

As a pro-life, pro-free speech spokeswoman from Scotland, I was invited to give the other view. 

That’s when things took a far more censorial turn. 

I told the BBC that the UK Home Office already investigated the need for buffer zones back in 2018. In their report, they found that instances of harassment outside of abortion facilities, though upsetting, were rare occurrences, that police already had suitable powers to deal with. They found far more common activities included engaging in silent prayer, or handing out leaflets about help and charitable services available for women who would choose to become mothers if they only had a little more support. 

BBC polling shows that almost one in five women who have abortions do so under coercion or pressure — perhaps from a partner, or from economic circumstances. Many women have spoken positively about the help they received, whether financial or practical, at their critical point of need. Buffer zones prevent choosing such help — they’re not “pro-choice” but “no choice”.

I made use of my platform to say all of this on air, getting the conversation into the open and outside of the echo chamber in Holyrood. 

The government didn’t appreciate the open dialogue. 

MP Alison Thewless, the SNP spokesperson at Westminster, took to the floor in the House of Commons the day afterwards, smeared my organisation as “extremist”, and called for me to be deplatformed from BBC Scotland. 

The Scottish government is all the poorer for refusing to engage

The Honourable Member referenced a slanderous and unjustified claim from the Southern Poverty Law Center — a thoroughly discredited, blatantly partisan activist organisation lacking in moral authority.

Years ago, they pinned the label “hate group” on our global partner organisation over in the US under totally unjustified false accusations. I could wax lyrical about these damaging lies. But ADF has already explained this, here. 

Surely the false smears of the American-based SPLC, who I have neither met nor live in the same country as, should have no bearing on my right as a Scottish woman to weigh in on my own national debate?

What I can tell you is about the organisation I work for. ADF UK is a registered UK charity that seeks to promote fundamental freedoms and protect the human dignity of all people. We supported the rights of Rosa Lalor, a grandmother from Liverpool who was wrongly arrested during lockdown for going for a simple prayer walk. We helped a Glasgow priest challenge the government last year when they disproportionately forced all churches to close, but kept off-licences and bicycle shops open. We helped a midwifery student, Julia Rynkiewicz, return to university after she was suspended simply for having pro-life opinions. The list goes on. We seek victories in court that will maintain the fundamental right to free expression, essential for the flourishing of all human rights for everyone. 

Censoring critics of censorship is a great irony, but sadly, no longer a great surprise in Scotland. The Scottish government is all the poorer for refusing to engage with its citizens, and silencing those who disagree. If a policy isn’t robust enough to withstand criticism from opponents, perhaps it isn’t adequate to best serve the people of Scotland. 

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