Glasgow, Scotland – The Scotland Act of 2016, enacted in the UK parliament in late March, has amended the Scotland Act of 1998 and handed a number of new powers to the devolved Scottish parliament.
Of these new powers, one of the more controversial is the power for the Scottish parliament to set its own abortion legislation.
The UK government’s Abortion Act of 1967 determines that a pregnant woman in Scotland, England and Wales has legal access to an abortion within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy if two doctors verify that she meets the law’s criteria .
The current Scottish government has made clear that it does not intend to alter current legislation: “The first minister is on record as saying: ‘We are not looking to change the law at all,'” says Denise Christie, the spokeswoman for the Scottish Committee of the pro-abortion rights organisation, Abortion Rights.
However, the initial announcement of the law’s devolution has “opened up the debate” around abortion rights legislation in Scotland, with a number of groups – both pro and anti-abortion rights – campaigning on the issue.
Pro-abortion rights campaigners
Christie says her organisation was concerned about the government’s lack of consultation with women’s groups while devolution was being discussed. “One of the fears was that it was going to open up the debate again, which it has,” she tells Al Jazeera.
Christie explains that her group, Abortion Rights, has increased its campaign efforts since the devolution was announced, not to change the legislation but to protect the laws as they stand and to make sure they are properly implemented.
According to Christie, there are still issues with the implementation of the 1967 legislation in Scotland: “There has been research to show that women seeking late-term abortions in Scotland are having to travel down to England because they can’t access them up here.
“Our campaign efforts just now are to make sure the 1967 legislation is implemented as it is because we’re not seeing that happening. We want to walk first before we can run. There are still women out there who do not have safe, legal access to abortion.”
Other pro-abortion rights groups see the forthcoming devolution as an opportunity to make abortion legislation more progressive in Scotland.
Abigail Fitzgibbon is the head of advocacy and campaigns for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). In a press release dated October 20, BPAS stated: “The devolution of abortion gives Scotland the opportunity to create a framework that is fit for purpose, and fit for the women of Scotland today.”
The legislation of 1967 “was hugely progressive at the time but it certainly wasn’t perfect”, Fitzgibbon tells Al Jazeera. BPAS has launched a UK-wide campaign entitled We Trust Women, with the aim of finally decriminalising abortion across Britain.
“In 2016, a woman cannot choose for herself to have an abortion,” BPAS states on the campaign website. “Two doctors must decide whether she meets the criteria laid out in the 1967 Abortion Act. Women should be trusted to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies.”
Fitzgibbon says she would be “very surprised” if the Scottish government were to alter current abortion legislation.
“[Anti-abortion rights groups] have failed time and time again to get any restrictions in Westminster,” Fitzgibbon says. “They saw [devolution] as an opportunity to, at the very least, have the time limit [for an abortion] brought down in Scotland.”
She says that anti-abortion rights groups seem to “always underestimate” the degree to which the public supports pro-abortion rights. “The public are compassionate and realistic about this.”
Anti-abortion rights campaigners
According to Christie, more than 75 percent (PDF) of the Scottish public are believed to support “a woman’s right to choose”.
However, she says there is still a strong movement of anti-abortion campaigners who may use the devolution to campaign for stricter abortion laws to be implemented in Scotland.
“Within five days of the announcement to potentially devolve abortion to Scotland, there was a motion put to the Scottish parliament by [Scottish National Party MP] John Mason, and it was a pro-life, anti-abortion motion,” Christie says.
Additionally, during the 40 days of Lent, between February 10 and March 20, a group called 40 Days for Life held vigils outside a Glasgow hospital.
The devolution was initially proposed by the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group within the UK parliament. “[The group] obviously thought there may be an opportunity that, with a devolved government, they could lobby certain politicians and certain government ministers to change the legislation,” Christie says.
John Deighan, chief executive of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) in Scotland, told Al Jazeera that the group’s “initial aim is to have society examine abortion. With devolution and with the ability to change a law comes a greater responsibility to understand it.”
Deighan says that in response to the devolution, the society will spearhead a campaign group entitled: Don’t Stop a Beating Heart.
Acting as campaign coordinator, Deighan stated in a press release on January 5: “This is a historic and important time for the [anti-abortion rights] movement. The rights of the unborn child are facing new threats with the impending devolution of powers to the Scottish parliament from Westminster.”
Deighan believes that current abortion legislation in Scotland is inconsistent with the right to life as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “We are for women, but we are for human rights,” Deighan says.
What’s next for abortion rights in Scotland?
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera last February, a Scottish government spokesperson said: “The Scottish government has no plans to change the law on abortion including any extension to the time limits, and the provision of abortion services in NHS Scotland is already devolved.
“Abortion is provided to all women in Scotland who require it within the legal limits. We are working to improve access to abortion for all women, in line with legislation, and will continue to do so.”
“It’s great that the Scottish government have got no reason or remit to change it, but that’s just now, and people will campaign to get certain people in certain positions of power,” Christie tells Al Jazeera.
Abortion Rights has written to politicians to determine their stance on abortion before the May 5 Scottish Parliament elections.
In their 2016 manifesto, the Scottish Green Party have pledged to liberalise abortion laws in Scotland if elected, stating that they will push for “abortion to be removed from the criminal justice system”.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Labour Party, along with Scotland’s largest political party, the Scottish National Party, has stated in their manifesto that they do not intend to change the legislation surrounding abortion.
According to Christie, while the majority of the public may take a pro-abortion rights stance, “there is a very small minority of people who are pushing for the laws to be stricter”.
“But they still need to be taken seriously and [be] informed of what is the right thing to do.”