However, when a protest strays into the intimidation of individuals, it becomes something else. Instead of a public demonstration about an issue of concern, it turns into a mob intent on restricting the freedom of someone going about their lawful business.
So, with that distinction in mind, the Scottish Government’s decision to test the establishment of 150-metre buffer zones around health facilities offering abortion is a welcome one, although it is regrettable that such a step should be necessary.
Perhaps the only criticisms are that it has taken so long for Nicola Sturgeon’s administration to come to this conclusion and that the move is not being expedited with greater urgency.
There has been a rise in anti-abortion protests in Scotland this year with women reporting they felt intimidated, harassed and traumatised while accessing healthcare treatment.
And there are fears that this trend will continue following the retrograde decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn to the 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling which protected a woman’s right to have an abortion in America. Sturgeon highlighted fears the US Supreme Court’s “catastrophic and horrific" decision might affect attitudes in Scotland, saying “often what we see in the United States spreads to other countries”.
One problem with banning abortion, as several US states have already done, is that some women, particularly the poorest who lack the means to access an abortion elsewhere, will resort to backstreet methods which can prove fatal. It is probably only a matter of time before someone dies.
Thankfully, Scotland is far away from such a prospect, but we should be on our guard amid the growing use of ‘culture war’ issues for political purposes.
Some anti-abortion protesters may complain that buffer zones will impinge on their freedom. But a 150m exclusion zone would still allow them to make their views known. They would be hindered in trying to target women getting abortions but, if that is not their intention, then their loss is insignificant. And, if that is their intention, they make the case for buffer zones.
The most ardent campaigners, across a range of issues, can sometimes fail to appreciate that the preservation of freedom is often a balancing act of competing rights. Buffer zones strike the right balance.