The National:

FOR about a decade now, a religious group based in the US has instigated an annual protest against reproductive healthcare in Scotland: they call this "40 Days for Life". This is usually held in Lent. This year, thanks to Covid, a kind of calendar widdershins means it's happening from the autumn equinox to Halloween.

It's easy to see these people as silly and harmless. Because most abortions in Scotland are carried out by NHS clinics, and the NHS won't let these anti-healthcare protesters on their premises, they are often left standing by the side of a road, unable to block the entrance to the clinic. Their pickets are usually easily avoided by patients and staff.

Even though what these people are doing is silly and ineffective, it's still wrong. Abortion is essential reproductive healthcare and a basic human right. John Mason, the SNP MSP for Glasgow Shettleston, claimed in a letter to a constituent that abortion is "seldom ‘essential’ or ‘vital'". But of course for the person who needs to terminate a pregnancy that is either unwanted or dangerous, abortion is essential - vital, for her continued health and well-being.

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Mason also said the anti-abortion activists picketing clinics are justified because a woman who is having an abortion may not realise "they have a choice ... having the baby and giving him/her up for adoption". It's astonishing in the 21st century that any man would hold such contempt for women that he thinks we'd be ignorant about adoption until a small group of picketers waving signs told us about it. But contempt for women's choices and women's rights runs through the anti-abortion movement. And sometimes, it turns very nasty indeed.

Everyone who has taken part in a pro-choice counterprotest has anecdotes of verbal abuse and even threats from the anti-abortion side - vile claims that the pro-choicers are supporting murder. Though for most anti-abortion protesters, even those standing outside clinics, this claim is mere rhetoric. But for everyone familiar with the history of the anti-abortion movement, the violence against property and against people, the murders of Doctor George Tiller and Doctor Barnett Slepian, shot dead by anti-abortion vigilantes, this claim always gives rise the question: "How seriously does this person actually believe that abortion - simple, legal, reproductive healthcare - is murder? Are they only a fool, or a fanatic?"

John Mason calls abortion "highly controversial and sensitive". But it is not a controversial position in Scotland, that the only person with the right to decide whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy is the person who is pregnant. He is correct to say that it is a sensitive decision, but for just that reason, anti-abortion picketers standing outside a clinic are not the people to interfere.

Not every conception can or will be gestated to term. For as long as women have practiced medicine, we have known how to end an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy - to argue, as anti-abortionists do, that no pregnancy should be terminated by human action, that all pregnant women should be forced to carry to term, is as unnatural as it is unkind. Doctor George Tiller, murdered in 2009 for providing life-saving abortions since 1975, declared that the case for providing abortions was simple: Trust women.

If she's decided to have an abortion, that is the right choice for her. Whatever her reasons or her motivations or her needs, the decision is hers. No one should ever be forced to have a baby against her will. This is Scotland, not Ceaușescu's Romania.

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To malign her decision-making, to argue that she doesn't know what she's doing or doesn't realise that she could have chosen to do something else, shows a contempt and distrust of women that is shocking in anyone, let alone an MSP.

While anti-abortion picketers are mostly ineffective in preventing people from accessing healthcare, and even though they may have the legal right to protest outside a clinic, this is the wrong place for them to express their views. Let them protest outside Parliament, on Princes Street, on any public pavement - but let them stay away from healthcare providers. They have no business interfering in the personal and sensitive decisions of strangers.

Jane Carnall, Abortion Rights Scotland