Scottish women’s reproductive rights are now at risk

By Hannah Pearson

This week marks 35 years since homosexuality was made legal in Scotland. While we should, of course, be celebrating this, alongside the introduction of same-sex marriage last year, it is important to remain vigilant concerning another human right which now risks being lost in Scotland – namely abortion rights. 

According to some commentators, while gay rights campaigners are consolidating their victories of the 1960s, abortion rights campaigners risk fighting a losing battle. But could a country which has progressed so far with LGBTI issues (even being named as the ‘best country in Europe for LGBTI legal equality’) really be in jeopardy of going backwards with abortion rights? There are already signs to suggest it could.

Following the UK government’s decision last month to devolve abortion law to Holyrood, Scotland has been awash with speculation about how this will affect Scottish women’s reproductive rights. Although some pro-choice campaigners in the country are optimistic that devolution provides an opportunity for a more progressive abortion law, there are others who fear possible damaging and restrictive consequences. 

From the outset there's been cause for concern. Fast on the heels of the devolution announcement, SNP MSP John Mason lodged a motion to recognise "the fundamental rights of babies to be protected both before and after birth", announcing to the press on the same day that he is keen to see the existing UK 24 week limit for abortion reduced when devolution occurs.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland yesterday morning, CEO of SPUC Scotland John Deighan, also referred to the opportunity devolution provides to "roll back and remove the need for abortion in our society". 

Despite first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s assurances that she doesn't want the law to change, the anti-abortion stance of leading SNP donor Brian Souter, whose charity reportedly donated to groups that try to "heal" women who have had abortions, is particularly troubling. 

There is already a precedent of the Scottish Government backing down under this kind of pressure – in 2008 it surrendered to the Catholic Church’s opposition to the HPV vaccine for teenage girls. Abortion was in fact excluded from the original devolution settlement in 1999 for fear that Scotland’s more socially conservative culture would lead to greater restrictions or even an outright ban. 

Historically, social sentiment, believed to be influenced by the country’s strong Catholic tradition, was more anti-abortion in comparison to the feeling in England. Twentieth century Scotland has been described as a society divided by a gender division so pronounced it even warranted the term "gender apartheid".  And the Scottish medical profession's reluctance at this time to participate in the field of fertility limitation is well documented. 

Nurses and midwives were perceived to be particularly anti-abortion, and the recent Glasgow midwives case illustrates that such beliefs are still prevalent in the Scottish medical profession today.

However, what I believe to be more worrying is that there is increasing evidence that the current law of 24 weeks is not yet being enforced properly – a factor largely absent from the devolution debate.

In the last few years there has been a spate of academic research revealing that abortion for non-medical reasons is generally not provided in Scotland after 18-20 weeks, despite the stipulation of a 24 week upper time limit in the 1967 Abortion Act. One study found unofficial time limits for abortion ranging from as low as 15-20 weeks gestation at different Scottish hospitals. This means that women seeking a late term abortion in Scotland are forced to travel to England, in much the same way as their Northern Irish sisters. 

It is estimated that in 2011, 157 Scottish women travelled to England for an abortion after 16 weeks' gestation. These women had to undertake a round trip of up to 1,400 miles, pay the up-front costs and request reimbursement later after completing a lot of onerous paperwork. This experience essentially discriminates against and stigmatises the small percentage of Scottish women seeking a late term abortion.

With the devolution of abortion law now finalised, there is a danger that this unofficial time limit of 18-20 weeks, could be officially lowered and enshrined in law. The Scottish government’s current relaxed attitude to implementing the 1967 Abortion Act in its entirety does not exactly bode well. 

My own postgraduate research into abortion access in Scotland revealed that although many individual Scottish politicians are seemingly unaware of the inequities in abortion provision, the Scottish government has previously considered the issue. In 2013 it ignored a recommendation to provide a national abortion service and opted instead to leave the matter of time limits to individual health boards, resulting in the continuing disparity of abortion provision in the country. 

This unwillingness to take ownership of the issue appears to stem from a general political reluctance of politicians in Scotland to stick their neck out on such a socially divisive issue. The interviews I conducted with a number of Scottish politicians revealed that political parties in Scotland deliberately choose not to engage with abortion, regarding it as a visceral issue with the potential to alienate voters.

This needs to change. Saying nothing about abortion must be made more politically costly than saying something. The example of same-sex marriage offers promising evidence that the Scottish public is amenable to discussing these kinds of issues when they're framed in terms of human rights and equality. 

And there have been encouraging examples regarding abortion rights. A poll commissioned by Abortion Rights Edinburgh, in July, found that more than 75% of Scots are in favour of abortion, and Scottish Green Party MSP Patrick Harvie recently lodged a motion (to rival that of John Mason) to defend against "any attempt to undermine women's access to safe and legal abortion in Scotland" in the wake of devolution. The motion is currently supported by 23 MSPs. 

This is good news, but in addition to debating the merits and risks of the devolution of abortion law, abortion rights supporters in Scotland and beyond need to mobilise and work together to ensure that, whatever the outcome of the devolution process, women's reproductive rights in Scotland are protected.

Hannah Pearson is a women's health researcher and abortion rights activist in Scotland. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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