As the dust settles and a new era of reproductive rights begins, I’ve been reflecting on what this ruling means. Not only for women across the United States, but also what possible challenges face Scotland ahead of this week’s UK Supreme Court hearing on Northern Ireland’s buffer zone bill.
In the hours following the landmark US ruling, we heard horrifying reports from across the water of clinics closing their doors, and patients – already in the treatment room - being declined treatment. In the subsequent days, restrictive abortion bans – dubbed ‘trigger laws’ – were enacted in 16 states and legislation is tabled in a further six states. In such a diverse country where one in four women will have an abortion, the pace at which these court rulings are popping up is causing undue confusion and panic for those trying to access reproductive healthcare.
But it doesn’t stop there. Not only has there been discussion on the extension of these bans to include intrauterine contraceptive devices (IUDs) and emergency contraception, but there are also plans from abortion care providers to open a ‘floating abortion clinic’ in the Gulf of Mexico to bypass bans in federal waters and provide a closer solution for many women in the southern US.
In many ways, we’re reverting to a pre-Roe way of life. In the 1950s, women in need of an abortion embarked on a ‘San Juan Weekend’, flying out of their hometown on a Friday evening to the Puerto Rican capital for abortion care and returning on a Sunday. For those who could afford it, this was the done thing and recent reports are showing an uptick of women in the US crossing borders to seek this care. In marginalised communities, however, this is not a realistic option and women will seek abortions illegally.
In the week following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, I attended the First Minister’s abortion care summit which I’d called for alongside Monica Lennon MSP and a number of other feminist organisations in May. Since co-founding Back Off Scotland in 2020, I’ve been critical of the Scottish Government’s handling of the buffer zone debate and I was initially skeptical about the summit. Having been omitted from the original agenda for the event, I was grateful to the First Minister for personally making sure that Back Off Scotland was given the opportunity to share the stories we’ve collected of patients and staff who have had to run the gauntlet of anti-abortion groups at the doors of medical facilities.
The discussions at the summit were positive and I was pleasantly surprised to find that everyone there was united on wanting to find a national legislative solution to combat this harassment. I believe that on this issue, the First Minister’s heart is in the right place. I’m encouraged by her pledge to work constructively with Gillian Mackay MSP on her bill, and her promise of a follow-up summit later in the year. Whilst the Scottish Government still have a lot of work to do on buffer zones and other elements of abortion policy, such as mid-trimester abortion provision, I am looking forward to working constructively towards our shared goals and will continue to hold decision-makers to account.
In other parts of the UK, there are similar movements on buffer zones. Rupa Huq MP recently tabled an amendment to the Public Order Bill in Westminster which would see safe access zones enacted around all clinics and hospitals providing abortion services across England and Wales. Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, the UK Supreme Court will hear a case this Tuesday regarding their recently passed safe access bill.
This court challenge has been used by the government to excuse lack of action and has been pointed to as a potential stumbling block for legislation here in Scotland. However, this case is not about buffer zones as a premise - instead it is about the legal minutiae of the law passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is solely concerned with whether the bill needs a ‘reasonable excuse’ defense clause to ensure it meets devolved nations’ human rights obligations. To put it simply, the bill states that there is no reasonable excuse for standing at a clinic entrance and trying to convince a woman not to access medical care. I believe this is right – this is not protest, it’s not a matter of free speech – it's about the ability of women to access legal, essential healthcare without fear of harassment.
Whilst we won’t hear about the outcome of the Northern Ireland case until the autumn, concerns over future legal challenges are not grounds for us to stop fighting for harassment-free access to abortion care here in Scotland. Legislation of this nature is almost certain to face a court challenge as is standard practice by well-funded, anti-abortion groups. A woman’s right to access abortion care free from harassment has been recognized and upheld by the courts in England – and we have every reason to believe they would be upheld here too. With the power and resources of the Scottish Government behind us, and cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament, we must work together to create as strong a piece of legislation as we can to move these anti-abortion groups away from the doors of our clinics and hospitals once and for all.