I am fully done with the anti-abortion protestors outside Chalmers

“At the end of the day, the right to choose is yours and yours alone”

Pro-life protestors have been seen gathering outside Chalmers, the NHS sexual health clinic opposite ECA. They’re protesting abortion services being offered at the clinic. The new student-led campaign Back Off Chalmers say they are “intimidating those accessing safe and legal healthcare for no good reason.”

Who are the pro-life protestors?

The approximately dozen protestors are affiliated with the American pro-life lobby and the international “40 Days for Life” campaign. They usually gather outside Chalmers every fourth Monday (and everyday during Lent) holding “prayer vigils”

You mean they’re there despite the pandemic?

Their website claims their vigils have been stopped since 10th October but several eyewitnesses have seen them since. Their leaflets claim to look out for the physical health of both the person obtaining the abortion and the foetus they are carrying. In March, they told one counter-protestor “spiritual health is more important than physical health” when asked if their vigils were a good idea in the face of rising Covid cases.

A campaign for pro-choice counter vigils does exist. They try to offer reassurance to those using the clinic and have offered to help walk service-users into the clinic if they are intimidated by the pro-lifers. However, they suspended their counter-protests before lockdown out of concern for the transmission risk of gatherings.

Is this an example of freedom of speech?

Back Off Chalmers disagrees. They are campaigning for a buffer zone around the clinic to ban protestors within 100m of the clinic.

Founder of Back Off Chalmers and Fourth Year Philosophy student Ella Cheney told The Edinburgh Tab: “We want to enable enforcement of a comfortable environment for people accessing essential medical services. We have the right to an abortion and the right to medical confidentiality. That means any decision should be between you, your doctor and whoever else you actively choose to include in it- not some strangers on the street.”

“Their presence is extremely offputting for people trying to access services- a whole range of services as well not just abortion services. At the end of the day the right to choose is yours and yours alone and you should be free to make it in peace, without having to cross the hurdle of judgement before you even go through the front door.”

Isn’t it just their religion?

As someone who was raised a Catholic, their beliefs have little substantive religious grounding. There is not one single bit in the Bible clearly stating that abortion is wrong. There are some very tenuous parts of the Old Testament that some interpret as such but there isn’t anything at all on abortion in the New Testament.

The Catholic faith I was raised to have was very big on love, tolerance, and forgiveness. And I don’t think needlessly harassing those accessing healthcare services really quite fits into that.

Anyways, isn’t the whole point of freedom of religion that people can’t force their beliefs on you? So, why should pro-lifers be able to force their beliefs on others?

What about other services offered at Chalmers?

Chalmers offer dozens of different sexual and reproductive health services, and abortion services are just one small part of it. The protestors aren’t just intimidating those accessing abortion.

For example, if their main goal is to limit abortions in society, then it makes little sense to target a clinic that also offers contraception. Because those accessing contraception at Chalmers are also being forced to confront the often gruesome images and rhetoric of the pro-lifers.

But science and logic isn’t their main concern. In the past they’ve told counter-protestors that they think “condoms spread AIDS” and that “the NHS pushes abortions on people to sell foetal body parts to companies like Coca Cola”.

Why is the right to choose so important?

To put it bluntly, the right to access contraception and abortion is what underpins women’s rights in society. Just last year, a close friend found out she was pregnant and decided to get an abortion after realising she’d probably have had to drop out of uni if she didn’t. This week, Stevie Nicks disclosed if she hadn’t have had an abortion, then Fleetwood Mac never would have existed.

A woman’s right to control her own body is what gives her control over her life.

In the UK, we can sometimes get complacent about abortion rights as it can often seem like an issue happening elsewhere. We roll our eyes at places like the US whilst forgetting that these issues affect us too.

Abortion wasn’t legal in all of the UK until October 2019 as Northern Ireland still used a Victorian-era law that treated it as a form of murder. In 2019, women in one part of the UK could be sentenced to life imprisonment for accessing abortion.

We also forget that pregnancy and childbirth are ultimately life threatening. In the Republic of Ireland in 2018, a referendum was held to decide whether a constitutional ban on abortion should be repealed. It passed with a large majority and was partly triggered by the tragic (but avoidable) death of a pregnant woman six years before.

Being an Irish citizen, I followed this referendum closely and I think we can learn from it. The vitriol from the pro-life side played out in the press and on social media. And yes much of it was disturbing and medically inaccurate. But this is where it belongs. It definitely does not belong in front of Chalmers, harassing unassuming patients trying to access perfectly legal healthcare.