When anti-abortion activists gathered in Glasgow for a sombre commemoration last night, to mark the 48th anniversary of abortion being legalised in Britain, they probably weren't expecting to spend the night tucked away behind dozens of feminists and pro-choice campaigners. But unfortunately for those at the vigil, organised by the Catholic Church-linked Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), that's exactly what happened. This came just weeks after it was announced that control of abortion law is set to be passed to the Scottish Parliament and already, it seems, the battle lines are forming.
Although Scotland's new powers won't come until next year, rival motions on abortion have already been launched in the Scottish Parliament, with the Greens urging their fellow MSPs to commit to defending women's right to choose, while an SNP backbencher – John Mason – stuck one up recognising the "the fundamental rights of babies to be protected." Given Mason's Christian fundie bent and track record of trying to clamp down on gay rights and install creationism on the Scottish curriculum, his latest antics haven't been hugely surprising.
But Scotland's lingering religious right – who over the past two decades have seen their influence slip away when it comes to social issues – have been looking for an excuse to pick a fight over abortion and now, it appears, they finally have their chance.
Although SPUC had long planned to assemble for their Glasgow vigil last night, it took on a new significance following the devolution announcement a couple of weeks ago. The current Scottish Government have confirmed they have no plans to amend the existing legislation but nonetheless, pro-choice activists weren't taking any chances. Gathering in George Square at dusk, they were there to greet a confused audience of nuns and greying church goers, who at first were probably wondering why their pro-life vigil was making such a racket. But on closer inspection, the noise was coming from their foes – the vigil was effectively surrounded and hidden behind an array of pro-choice banners and hand-drawn signs, the sound of prayers and religious readings was barely audible above the chants of "my body, my choice" and "pro-life, that's a lie! You don't care if women die!"
Despite the chants about pro-lifers not caring if women die, and the tit-for-tat responses being shouted back about pro-choicers being murderers who don't care about babies, it all remained surprisingly calm. After about an hour, the 200 or so pro-lifers – who spent a lot of time clutching candles, tutting loudly and praying intently, below a big banner of the Virgin Mary – marched off towards a nearby church. As they headed off, I was keen to find out what they made of the night's surprise counter-protest, but most were reluctant to offer anything more than platitudes about how important it is to protect life. Few seemed to have figured out a political strategy for overturning the Abortion Act either. "We'll do it through prayer," offered one older woman.
"Life is so precious. Obviously the protesters are allowed to have their opinion but it saddens me to see women on it," said Grace, a young women who had travelled from Paisley for the anti-abortion rally. "It's the creation of their body that provides life and it's sad that they can't see the worth in that."
I asked Grace how she had got involved with the evening's vigil. "My dad runs it," she replied.
The counter-protesters were in a buoyant mood though and felt they had sent a strong message that they won't be complacent when it comes to defending the right to choose.
"Tonight went really well. We were here to send a message that not everyone in Scotland thinks the same as those at the vigil", Emily Beever, NUS Scotland's women's officer, and one of the counter-demo organisers, told me. "It's absolutely crucial that women make their voices heard and put women's rights at the centre of this debate."
That debate is now in full flow. Just yesterday, the Free Church of Scotland decided it would be clever to compare abortion with, of all things, slavery, using a newspaper column to argue that people in the future will look back on the two with a similar sense of horror. All their chat about the future seems weird though, given that what they're proposing - abolishing the Abortion Act - would drag women's rights in Scotland back at least 50 years. Others have also joined the fray, including the prominent commentator and Observer columnist Kevin McKenna. An "unequivocal" opponent of the right to choose, he's recently been fretting about "atheistic orthodoxy" and Christians being denied a voice by the "intolerant secularism" of modern Scotland.
No doubt those who share McKenna's views will see Thursday's demo on these terms – the right of Christians to hold a peaceful vigil against what they see as the "evil" of abortion being drowned out by an intolerant rabble. Their pro-choice opponents, which according to one recent poll amounts to 75 percent of the Scottish population, might respond that a more accurate definition of tolerance probably involves allowing women a say over their own bodies.
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