Women’s organisations have raised concerns after the SNP’s spokesperson at Westminster on mental health voted against a motion to introduce a Bill to restrict demonstrations near abortion clinics in England.
MP Lisa Cameron’s vote was submitted by proxy by the SNP’s Chief Whip and was the only vote cast by the party, which typically abstains from voting on English-only laws. The motion, proposed by Labour MP Dr Rupa Huq, passed with 213 votes to 47.
Campaigners from Abortion Rights Scotland, Engender and Scottish Women’s Aid, have criticised Cameron’s vote last week, arguing that anti-abortion demonstrations have a directly harmful effect on women’s mental health.
Cameron, a clinical psychologist and MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, spoke publicly about her pro-life views last July after voting against the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, citing her Christianity.
Following Cameron’s vote last week, Jillian Merchant, of Abortion Rights Scotland, said: “We are appalled to learn that Dr Lisa Cameron MP voted against ending the harassment of women outside abortion clinics.
“Given that this legislation, if passed, would not apply in Scotland, and that the SNP do not generally vote on ‘English-only’ issues, this not only calls into question Dr Cameron’s priorities but also demonstrates the lengths she is willing to go, as a law-maker, to inflict her anti-choice views on other women.
“Women should not have to run a gauntlet of protestors, be shouted at, have their decision-making questioned and be confronted with pictures of foetuses on their way to accessing routine healthcare.”
This not only calls into question Dr Cameron’s priorities but also demonstrates the lengths she is willing to go, as a law maker, to inflict her anti-choice views on other women. Jillian Merchant, Abortion Rights Scotland
Merchant said the fact that the vote was submitted by the SNP’s Chief Whip was particularly concerning, claiming this “calls into question the SNP’s commitment to abortion rights”.
She added: “The SNP, as well as Dr Cameron, should be held accountable for why they think it is acceptable for women to be harassed while accessing routine healthcare.”
The Bill proposed by Huq follows issues in her own constituency, where Ealing Council became the first in the UK to introduce 100 metre buffer zones around abortion facilities in 2018, due to frequent protests by anti-abortion groups.
Similar protests have taken place in Scotland, although the issue is slightly different as abortions are typically provided in hospitals. There have been discussions in some Scottish local authorities around introducing buffer zones in response.
Ruling on an unsuccessful appeal against the buffer zones in Ealing last year, a judge said demonstrations outside these facilities amount to “uninvited attention” when women are “vulnerable and sensitive”.
Scottish Women’s Aid suggested that Cameron’s opposition to the motion reflects a failure to understand the potential impacts of such protests on mental well-being, particularly for women who have experienced abuse.
A spokeswoman for Scottish Women’s Aid said: “We find it unfathomable that any politician would vote against this bill, but particularly a politician with a responsibility for mental health, when women have told us for decades about the impact that limiting access to reproductive rights has on their mental wellbeing.
“Forced pregnancy and restricting access to abortion and health services can be tactics in an abuser’s arsenal. For women who have had choice in their own lives restricted to be greeted with anti-choice sentiment, reinforcing the messages coming from their abuser about their choices and their worth, compounds harm.”
Feminist policy group Engender also raised concerns about Cameron’s vote against the motion.
Director of Engender, Emma Ritch, said: “Women’s access to reproductive services, including abortion, is necessary to our physical and mental health. Women find protests at healthcare clinics to be threatening, distressing, and traumatising.
Ritch said that protests are a “barrier to safe and legal abortion” adding they also cause “profound distress to women undergoing fertility treatments and accessing other sexual health services”.
“Protests at healthcare services are designed to intimidate patients, some of whom will be experiencing the trauma of terminating a much-wanted pregnancy that may harm them, undergoing a natural miscarriage, or seeking treatment after being sexually assaulted,” Ritch continued.
“Women’s mental health is best supported by slightly relocating loud and angry protests by those who believe they can make better decisions about women’s bodies and lives than women can.
“We would encourage anyone concerned with women’s mental wellbeing to reflect on the impact that these protests have, and do all they can to remove them, along with other the barriers to accessing abortion.”
It’s hugely dispiriting that the SNP’s mental health spokesperson doesn’t recognise the impact such demonstrations could have on women’s mental health. Alison Johnstone, Scottish Greens
Scottish Greens MSP Alison Johnstone said that women seeking to access reproductive health services “shouldn’t have to worry about avoiding demonstrations outside clinics”.
“It’s hugely dispiriting that the SNP’s mental health spokesperson doesn’t recognise the impact such demonstrations could have on women’s mental health,” Johnstone added.
Responding to criticisms, Dr Lisa Cameron MP said: “Prior to coming into politics, I worked as a clinical psychologist in mental health for over 20 years and on no occasion did anyone ever call into question my suitability because I am a Christian with pro-life views.
She added: “This was entirely a conscience vote by proxy, submitted on my behalf by the SNP Chief Whip, and it was also commensurate with the parliamentary review that national buffer zones are not a proportionate response, as legislation already exists to restrict protest activities that cause harm to others.”
Speaking ahead of the vote at Westminster last week, Dr Rupa Huq stressed that her motion was “not about the rights and wrongs of abortion” and that “many MPs on both sides of the house who are supporting this bill are devout Christians”.
She said: “This is about women being able to present themselves for legal healthcare free from intimidation.”
The SNP did not respond to a request to clarify its position regarding Dr Cameron’s vote, and the party’s Chief Whip submitting the vote on her behalf.