Anti-abortion Christian lobbyists have met with MSPs from all the major political parties at Holyrood over 100 times since the start of 2021, prompting concerns from women’s rights groups.
An investigation by The Ferret can reveal that politicians lobbied include 10 Conservative MSPs including party leader, Douglas Ross, the Liberal Democrat leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton, and five SNP MSPs including finance secretary, Kate Forbes.
The recent ruling in the US to overturn Roe vs Wade and an uptick in anti-abortion protests here in Scotland has re-ignited debate around abortion provision.
At Holyrood, abortion rights have been high on the agenda as early medical abortion at home was trialled during the pandemic and made permanent in May this year.
A bill proposed by Scottish Green MSP Gillian Mackay to implement “buffer zones” to stop anti-abortion protests taking place outside hospitals and clinics was officially backed by the Scottish Government this week.
According to the Scottish Parliament’s Lobbying Register, the organisations involved in anti-abortion lobbying were Christian Action Research and Education (CARE for Scotland) which had 14 meetings, Bishops Conference of Scotland which had 10 meetings, the Free Church of Scotland with two meetings, and Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) which had one meeting.
A further 81 meetings on other topics occurred between MSPs and these organisations – as well as other well-known anti-abortion campaigners Evangelical Alliance and Christian Institute – since 2021.
These meetings included discussions on assisted dying, commercial sexual exploitation, conversion therapy, gender recognition reform, hate crime, and religious freedom.
Feminist organisation Engender said the frequency of meetings between parliamentarians and anti-abortion lobbyists was “worrying”, while Abortion Rights Scotland raised concerns about transparency.
Most groups did not reply to our request for comment. But the Free Church of Scotland said it raised concerns with MSPs over the issue of home abortion because it believed the “process was open to abuse/coercion”.
Anti-abortion SNP MSP John Mason has argued that pro-choice campaigners like Back Off Scotland – which has led calls for the introduction of buffer zones – have greater influence with the government than those who oppose abortion. Back off Scotland had no entries in the lobbying register.
The Holyrood anti-abortion lobby
Groups who oppose abortion include Care, which says on its website, it aims “to work for a society where abortion is unthinkable” and “advocate for greater protection for [preborn babies] in legislation”. It also works on issues such as gambling, upholding “family values” and assisted suicide.
Evangelical Alliance states on its website that it is “advocating for the value of human life in the corridors of power” and “for the Christian family structure”. CARE, Evangelical Alliance and Life co-founded the Both Lives Matter campaign which seeks “to reframe the abortion debate in Northern Ireland and beyond”.
SPUC, the self-described “oldest pro-life campaigning and educational organisation in the world”, sought to legally challenge the Scottish Government’s decision to allow the second abortion pill to be taken at home in 2017. But it was thrown out by the court and an appeal was rejected.
Christian Institute has led campaigns in Scotland against the “smacking ban” and Hate Crime Bill, and its latest annual review claims that permitting abortion pills to be taken at home “normalise[s] the killing of the unborn” and outlines plans to take legal action against the proposed conversion therapy ban.
Free Church of Scotland follows a strict reading of the bible which opposes same-sex marriage and abortion.
Of the 27 meetings opposing abortion recorded in the Lobbying Register by these groups, 20 focused on abortion at home, four were on buffer zones, one on coerced abortions, and two referred to abortion more generally.
Finance minister Kate Forbes met with the Free Church of Scotland in January 2021 during which its opposition to home abortions – pills taken at home – was raised.
Last month, SNP MSP John Mason met three members of CARE’s senior team over dinner in Edinburgh and “discussed a wide range of matters including abortion/buffer zones”.
SNP MSP Paul McLennan was also lobbied on home abortions by the Bishops Conference of Scotland.
More Tory MSPs met with the organisations in question than any other party. Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross was lobbied by CARE on home abortion while in June 2021, Conservative Jeremy Balfour discussed with CARE representatives “a draft letter to the Scottish Government which CARE have been working on with the MSP” regarding the Abortion At Home Consultation. Murdo Fraser had one meeting with CARE on abortion.
Three MSPs met with the organisations on more than two occasions.
Some of the organisations cited above have reported large, unrestricted incomes which primarily come from donations, the sources of which are not published.
For the year 2020/21, CARE reported an income of £2.3m, 99 per cent of which came from “donations and legacies”.
SPUC reported a net movement of funds of £2.7m, including £72,249 from a “USA restricted donation”.
Alys Mumford of Engender suggested the funding represented as “a huge power imbalance”, given that “a lot of pro-choice activism is done by volunteers on a shoestring”.
She said: “Everyone has the right to meet with MSPs and ministers, but I think the repeated meetings are potentially more of a concern.
Abortion Rights Scotland’s Jane Carnall aslo raised concerns around transparency.
Carnall said: “We support the parliamentary process and the right to lobby. We had certainly rather these groups were meeting peacefully with parliamentarians than picketing healthcare provision.
“Our main concern is that given the Scottish Government's public support for abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, any meeting by a government minister with these lobbying groups ought to be fully transparent and on the record - even if the minister is meeting with them in their capacity as MSP.”
With “three in four people” in Scotland agreeing that abortion should be safe and legal on the NHS, she claimed the views of the lobbying organisations were “extreme” and unrepresentative.
A spokesperson for the Free Church confirmed it held two meetings with MSPs which included discussion of the public consultation on home abortion.
Its public engagement coordinator Stephen Allison said: “In our response to that consultation, we expressed our concerns that women were getting an inadequate service through video consultations, lack of follow-up, and that the process was open to abuse/coercion.
“We have also responded to the Buffer Zone consultation. We don’t advocate pro-life vigils as a wise or appropriate way to engage with this issue, however, we oppose buffer zones as a disproportionate interference with freedom of expression, which sets a dangerous precedent of the state being able to ban both protests and efforts to persuade individuals to change their mind on controversial issues.”
CARE, Evangelical Alliance, Christian Institute, and Bishops’ Conference of Scotland did not respond to a request for comment.
Meetings with MSPs
SNP MSP John Mason, who has been vocally opposed to abortion, revealed to The Ferret that he personally donates to some of the organisations in question.
Mason said: “As far as I am aware, SPUC and CARE get most of their funding from individuals (including myself) who might contribute £10 per month or similar. They are both constantly mailing us asking for money so I do not think they are exactly rolling in funds from some big backer.”
He claimed “no one dictates” his position, adding: “I do not really consider that these organisations have much power although they do have some influence. The majority of MSPs would probably not agree with them and I suspect many MSPs would not even meet them.
“Back off Scotland have certainly been lobbying MSPs and I imagine meeting with some as well. They seem to have got closer to the heart of government than any of the organisations mentioned on the pro-life side. But we do not need to be concerned that people are talking to each other.”
Mason’s comments were refuted by a Back Off Scotland spokesperson, who said: “Anti-choice groups are not simply the concerned citizens they’re painting themselves as – they’re part of a well-funded international movement.”
SNP MSP Paul McLennan confirmed he does “not share the views of any of the groups on abortion”. He has publicly supported buffer zones.
A spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats party leader Alex Cole-Hamilton also said he had been “campaigning in support” of buffer zones, decriminalising abortion and improving access.
The spokesperson added: “As a proponent of free speech, Alex is never afraid to meet with and confront the arguments of anyone he vehemently disagrees with.”
A spokesperson for Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, who had four meetings with CARE, said “at no point in any meeting” had she discussed abortion with CARE representatives. She shares Scottish Labour’s pro-choice view, they added. Grant recently accepted a second intern through CARE’s parliamentary leadership programme
Finance secretary Kate Forbes is on maternity leave and her office did not respond to a request for comment.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, MSPs Jeremy Balfour and Murdo Fraser also failed to respond.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government believes all women in Scotland should be able to access timely abortion care without judgment, should they require it.
“As such, we are working across a number of areas to improve access to abortion services, including work to ensure the development of national level legislation that allows safe access to healthcare facilities that provide abortion services.”
Photo thanks to Scottish Parliament TV.