13 July 2022
Written by Hannah McNicol

‘Buffer Zones’ and freedom of speech

This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 edition of the Social Issues Bulletin. Download the whole Bulletin.

Compassion Scotland is a voluntary organisation made up of women that are campaigning against the implementation of censorship zones (normally called buffer zones) outside of abortion clinics. Buffer zones would criminalise both pro-life and pro-choice groups from gathering outside abortion clinics. Compassion Scotland seeks to defend the groups that wish to offer life-affirming resources to abortion-minded women and to defend freedom of expression. The following article was written for The Bulletin by one of Compassion’s spokeswomen.

True Empathy

A huge reason that Compassion holds the position that we do is because buffer zones would criminalise attempts to offer help, support, and information to expectant mothers at what can be a time of crisis. A survey done by the BBC that was published on 14 March 2022 said: ‘15% of women in our survey told us they’d experienced pressure to terminate a pregnancy when they didn’t want to.’[1]

It is evident that if someone is coerced into doing something, they are not giving consent at all. That is what makes the statistic so shocking, it means that 15% of abortions in the UK are done without full consent. Pro-life vigils outside of abortion clinics are the last safeguard possible against coercion, by showing the alternative options available.

In addition, since there are already laws against harassment and intimidation, the only effect buffer zones would have is cutting off the last chance of help to women who are panicking about their pregnancy. The campaign Be Here for Me by Alina Dulgheriu demonstrates this well. Alina was booked in to have an abortion but did not truly want it. The reason she did not go through with the abortion was because people were offering real help and support outside the abortion clinic.[2] 

Rachel Mackenzie runs a Rachel’s Vineyard in the Midlands, a charity dedicated to providing retreats for post-abortive women as well as their families. Rachel herself has had two abortions and her testimony of abortion regret is powerful. She describes an abortion-minded woman in a crisis pregnancy situation in the following way:

She is in a very dark tunnel and the only light at the end of the tunnel is abortion, so she sprints towards that end of the tunnel and goes through with it. But as soon as she is out the other end and turns around, the tunnel behind her is bricked up and there is no going back because that child is now dead.

This metaphor of a dark tunnel is so apt for our pro-death culture, it tells women that abortion is the only choice to make if you are unexpectedly pregnant and you want to have a happy life. Women are told that their career goals, social life, and autonomy are over if they do not have an abortion when they are pregnant in unideal conditions. Not only are children seen as impediments to happiness and fulfilment, but there is also social ostracisation that goes on because of unexpected pregnancies. Her partner and even her family may put pressure on her to abort the baby because the baby was not planned or wanted. This is why it is also important to us at Compassion Scotland to always talk in a positive way about parenthood, especially motherhood.

Freedom of Speech

Buffer zones would amount to a breach of the right to assembly, the right to freedom of speech and the right to freedom of religion. These rights are of course fundamental to a society in which there is a lot of diversity of belief. A feature of buffer zones is that they would ban people from visibly praying outside abortion clinics. This obviously sets a worrying precedent for the future – the government would be able to tell people where they can and cannot pray.

In an interview, the Minister for Women’s Health (who is in favour of buffer zones) said that there are legal complexities involved in the creation of buffer zones. That any infringement of human rights is required to be necessary and proportionate to withstand legal challenge. Compassion’s research shows that buffer zones are neither necessary nor proportionate.

Through Freedom of Information (FIO) requests, Police Scotland have revealed there were no recorded crimes relating to vigil groups at 13 different hospitals and clinics across Scotland between 1 January 2016 and 31 December 2021. We have found no evidence of harassment or intimidation.[3] The implementation of buffer zones is completely disproportionate when the evidence is examined.

As a group of women, we absolutely agree that no woman should ever face harassment or intimidation. Which is why we are thankful that our criminal law already criminalises threatening or abusive behaviour under section 3B of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010. The existence of the breach of the peace offence also means that conduct which is alarming or disturbing to others can be prosecuted. These laws are sufficiently broad to ensure any harassment or intimidation is properly criminalised without the need to create a censorship zone on public land.

Abortion Summit at the Scottish Parliament

As a result of pro-buffer zone campaigning, the Scottish Parliament decided to hold a summit on abortion on 27 June 2022. Member’s legislation was presented by Gillian Mackay MSP (Green party). Among other things, this legislation favours jail time for being a pro-life presence outside an abortion clinic. There are a few groups, both pro and anti buffer zone that were invited to this (Compassion Scotland was not invited).

It is so important to oppose this legislation of censorship zones around abortion clinics because it would exacerbate the problem in our culture of no alternative narrative being offered to women with unplanned pregnancies. We as Compassion Scotland exist to represent those who offer a life-affirming narrative to women before they make a choice that they cannot take back.

If you would like to find out more about Compassion Scotland then visit their website: https://www.compassionscotland.com/ or follow them on social media: @compassionscotland on Instagram and @compassionscot on Twitter.


[1] Alys Harte and Rachel Stonehouse. (14 March 2022) Reproductive coercion: ‘I wasn’t allowed to take my pill’. BBC [online]. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-60646285 [Accessed 23 June 2022].

[2] You can watch Alina’s message to MLAs online: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=509258460699661&ref=sharing [Accessed 23 June 2022]

[3] All the Freedom of Information requests Compassion Scotland have made can be accessed online: https://www.compassionscotland.com/general-7 [Accessed 23 June 2022).


Written by
Hannah McNicol
Hannah is a student of philosophy and French. She is a member of St. Andrews Free church, a committee member of Students for Life St. Andrews and a spokeswoman for Compassion Scotland.

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