This is not happening because these women are located in remote areas, or because they require specialist treatment for complex medical issues, in fact it is quite the opposite. Women from cities that enjoy some of Scotland’s best healthcare infrastructure, like Glasgow, who are in their second trimester of pregnancy where abortion care has been legal for more than 50 years are being shipped as far away as Bournemouth on the south coast of England to have an abortion.
As it stands there is no health board in Scotland that provides abortion care up to the longstanding legal limit of 24 weeks to the women in its area. In every part of Scotland, these women are being sent to England in order to access the care they so desperately need and are legally entitled to.
This is a longstanding issue for which no solution has ever been sought, let alone found. The Scottish Government has singularly failed to seek the commissioning of later services, facilitate the training of doctors, or exercise the political will to ensure that these women can access abortion care closer to home.
Since I set up Back Off Scotland – a small, student-run campaign wanting to see the introduction of national harassment-free ‘buffer zones’ around clinics providing abortion services – I have received hundreds of messages from women who have been deeply distressed after facing anti-choice groups outside hospitals.
In recent months however, particularly as Sandyford Sexual Health Clinic in Glasgow started to see regular anti-choice protests and our campaign gained traction in Holyrood, Scottish women have been contacting me to tell me that they were targeted by protestors when they were accessing abortion services in England, and I have real concerns about how many women are being traumatised by having to travel such a distance in an already vulnerable state.
I spoke to one woman from Glasgow who didn’t find out she was pregnant for a number of months as the contraception she was on meant that she had no periods, and she hadn’t gained any weight. She described to me the shock she felt when a routine doctors appointment concluded that she was over five months pregnant. After vomiting and having a nosebleed on the examination table out of pure shock, she was told there was nothing that could be done in Scotland and if she wanted a termination, she would have to arrange that herself in England. She managed to pluck up the courage to call the number that she was given for a British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) clinic in London and travelled there the next day for her procedure. When she arrived at the clinic, protestors threw eggs at her and someone screamed in her face, calling her a murderer. She recalls passing them again on the way out of the clinic, but she was dazed and just wanted to get home. Unfortunately for her, she had to recover from the procedure 400 miles away from her home. The next day she flew home, thousands of pounds out of pocket and secure in the knowledge that had she not had such a strong support system and the means to pay for her treatment, transport, and accommodation, she would not have been able to exercise her right to have an abortion within the legal limit. Reflecting on this years later, she told me that she had been made to feel ashamed by the system.
This shocked me to my core, and it is an experience that has been hauntingly echoed by the myriad of other women that I have spoken to about their experiences. What makes it more shocking to me is the fact that the Scottish Government is well-aware of this.
In 2014, government-commissioned research into Scottish women’s experiences of traveling to England for care was published. The findings were bleak and improving solutions to access these abortions were described by the researchers as a “necessity”. Women reported to these government-funded researchers that they were forced to ask their parents for money without disclosing why, were unable to travel because of child sickness, and had to find ways to take time off work while they weren't eligible for sick pay. And absolutely nothing changed as a result of them sharing their stories.
It is unacceptable that this is the reality of abortion policy in Scotland in 2022 and it cannot be allowed to go on unchecked any longer. There are also significant questions to be asked over how the provision would continue if Scotland were to become independent, as well as how accurate the collection of Scottish abortion figures are given that the hundreds of women that have travelled to England for abortion care have been omitted from the official statistics.
But despite appointing a Women’s Health Minister and launching a Women’s Health Plan, there are no plans to secure a fit-for-purpose abortion framework for those requiring second trimester abortions in Scotland. When asked about this by LBC in May, Maree Todd said “we are looking at that again”. Six words, zero accountability, yet hundreds of women forced to travel to a different country to exercise their right to accessing legal healthcare.
Lucy Grieve is co-founder/director of Back Off Scotland, a campaign group fighting for the right to harassment-free access to abortion