Compassion Scotland launched earlier this month, claiming to be independent and unaffiliated with any other religious or political organisation.
A group campaigning to "protect the right" of people to protest outside abortion and sexual health clinics in Scotland has denied links to evangelical and extremist organisations, amid claims the group misled the public.
Compassion Scotland, launched in May 2022 in response to discussions around the introduction of proposed buffer zones outside hospitals, has faced criticism for failing to disclose how it is funded and whether it receives support from external campaigns.
Last week Green MSP Gillian Mackay launched a consultation on a new proposed law which would designate protest free “buffer zones” outside abortion clinics.
The Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill seeks to protect patients from a rising number of protests outside of abortion clinics.
Protests in Scotland have continued in recent months, with Scotland experiencing some of the biggest and most frequent protests during April and May 2022.
The consultation claims the majority of individuals and groups who gather outside healthcare sites providing abortion services to attempt to influence decisions are seeking to dissuade or deter access to, or provision, of abortion care.
Research by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Back Off Scotland found that seven hospitals and clinics in Scotland have experienced protests since 2017.
Ahead of the consultation and in response to increased attention on the issue of anti-abortion protests, Compassion Scotland launched online on 10 May, with the domain “compassionscotland.com” registered that evening, before being updated four days later.
Following its launch, Compassion Scotland distributed a press release claiming that protesters near to clinics offering abortion services are “people who offer help or support to women” within 150m of hospital grounds.
By 14 May the group had uploaded a series of Freedom of Information request responses on its website. Compassion Scotland’s website states that they showed no recorded incidents of intimidation or harassment at thirteen different locations across Scotland between 1 January 2016 and 31 December 2021.
However, analysis of the responses from a number of Scottish health boards and Police Scotland shows that while many hospitals and facilities in Scotland did not experience any issues or incidents of harassment, a single complaint was made at both Aberdeen Maternity Hospital and Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
Multiple complaints were also logged with police between 2018 and the end of last year (when the latest available data was shared) at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) in Govan, Forth Valley Hospital in Larbert and Chalmers Sexual Health Clinic in Edinburgh.
As well as the above incidents, a complaint made referring to an incident near to Glasgow’s QEUH saw a criminal report filed.
No mention of any of the above incidents was made in subsequent press releases or interviews carried out by Compassion Scotland, which instead repeatedly claimed that the Freedom of Information requests reveal there were no recorded incidents of intimidation or harassment.
The group’s spokesperson, Hannah McNicol, has fronted the campaign in recent weeks, speaking to national publications, including the Guardian.
Ms McNicol told that newspaper that the group was independent, with no affiliation with, nor funding from, any other religious or political organisation.
Ms McNicol herself has links to a number of so-called “pro-life” groups, including in St Andrews, where she attends university.
The student has been quoted as president of society Students for Life, St Andrews, and has also appeared in online explainer-style videos on social media where she was noted as its vice president. The student’s personal Instagram page, which is private, lists the Students for Life St Andrews group within her biography.
However, since the launch of Compassion Scotland, Ms McNicol has not appeared on the society’s committee list on its website.
Her work with the society includes representing the group as a delegate at the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) Youth and Student Conference earlier this year.
SPUC is Britain’s oldest anti-abortion campaign, which opposes abortion in all forms and has attracted controversy for its anti-LGBT views and opposition to a woman’s right to choose.
During the annual conference Ms McNicol was photographed with a sign which read “why are turtle eggs more protected than human babies?”. The sign was branded with the logo of student membership and support group Alliance of Pro-Life Students (APS).
Ms McNicol also showed her support for a large-scale “vigil” held in Glasgow during environmental conference Cop26 in November 2021, which expressed concerns that the general public did not care as much for unborn lives as they do for the environment.
Alliance of Pro-Life Students
Students for Life St Andrews is just one of a number of Alliance of Pro-Life Students (APS) affiliated groups which have been launched across Britain - with others at universities in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow.
APS was first registered with Companies House in September 2012, with a vision to support university societies that “have a lasting and profound respect for human life from fertilisation to natural death”.
Despite claims Compassion Scotland is entirely independent and free from affiliation with outside religious or political organisations, links to the Alliance call this into question.
APS’ blog includes an entire post dedicated to one of its leading member’s experience of campaigning for an evangelical Conservative MP during the 2019 general election.
Among the list of current directors of APS is Jacqueline Frances Stewart - the only one of the listed officers who is currently not a listed staff member or office holder on the organisation’s website. Alongside her role with APS, Ms Stewart also acts as one of six directors of Glasgow-based charity Fertility Care Scotland, which has links with the Catholic Church through the Archdiocese of Glasgow.
Alliance Defending Freedom
Within days of its launch, questions had been asked about Compassion Scotland, its founding, and who was behind the campaign.
Despite being quoted in a number of national publications, as well as on commercial and public service broadcasting, very little is known about the group. Ms McNicol - widely listed as Compassion Scotland’s spokesperson - is the only named member.
A number of online activists have asked Compassion Scotland in recent weeks to disclose how it is funded and whether it has links to outside organisations.
One particular point of contention surrounds Compassion Scotland’s denial of any link to the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a fundamentalist Christian group designated as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Centre.
On 13 May, Back Off Scotland - which has long led calls for the introduction of buffer zones around abortion clinics in Scotland, said on Twitter: “These groups are not simply the concerned citizens they're painting themselves as.
“They are part of a well-funded international movement designed to overturn abortion rights in Scotland. They are funded by the same groups that are attempting to overturn Roe v. Wade in the US.
“Their funding and staffing is murky, and they appear to work in lockstep with ADF. In the US, the ADF is recognised as ‘a designated hate group’”.
Those behind Compassion Scotland leapt to their own defence, describing the claims as “an outrageous lie designed to discredit us”.
They added: “We are a group of women from across Scotland. We run Compassion in our own time, unpaid, and have no links to other groups in Scotland, or overseas. If Back Off Scotland have any integrity, they will delete these false claims.”
The post by Back Off Scotland was not deleted.
ADF has previously worked closely with members of the APS. In 2019, its work backing Students for Life at the University of Glasgow was highlighted after the society’s ban from affiliating with the Student Representative Council was overturned.
Among the small number of followers which Compassion Scotland has on Twitter, the first accounts to follow the campaign were from evangelical Christian campaigners, including those from the ADF.
One of these is Lois McLatchie, who now works as the communications director at the ADF in the UK. She was the first follower of the Compassion Scotland Twitter account after its foundation this month, and has consistently liked and shared the campaign’s content on her own platforms.
Ms McLatchie is herself a former St Andrews University student, member of its Christian Union, and has spoken at Students for Life events in the town as well as being listed as a Facebook friend of Hannah McNicol. Both Ms McNicol and Students for Life St Andrews have shown support for Mc McLatchie’s work on her professional and personal Instagram pages, with Ms McLatchie also following both accounts.
The communications professional has appeared on national news, including on right-wing channel GB News, discussing the proposed buffer zones legislation. She has also written for The Times, the Herald, and a number of conservative publications.
While ADF representatives and official accounts have liked and shared content from Compassion Scotland, financial links between the two organisations cannot be established as ADF does not publish full details of its financial donations and charity work with other groups.
The ADF’s UK branch has received hundreds of thousands of pounds in unrestricted funds from its American counterparts in recent years.
The American group is recognised as one of the most influential extremist groups in the country, having reportedly strong links with Mike Pence, former Vice President in the Donald Trump administration, and Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
The London office, which opened in 2017, has seen significant lobbying done, with reports suggested more than £400,000 was spent in the first two years of operations in Britain.
Following these revelations, those taking part in the debate around the introduction of buffer zones in Scotland have raised concerns about the influence of outside religious and political groups, as well as the platform provided by the media.
Back Off Scotland, which has led the campaign to introduce the measures in Scotland in recent years, has disputed the evidence provided that women are not being harassed when accessing abortion services.
Co-founder Alice Murray said: “I co-founded Back Off Scotland because I was harassed by anti-choice protestors when I got an abortion aged 20. The presence of this group caused me a lot of distress and that is why I’m so motivated to make sure that the law is changed and no one else has to go through what I did.
“Back Off Scotland has always been clear - there is no place for unregulated and unsolicited roadside ‘advice’ when accessing healthcare. That is harassment, and it’s a disservice to abortion providers who are wonderful at their jobs and are clear in talking you through all options before signing off on an abortion.
“Since we started the campaign in 2020, we have gathered hundreds of documented, real life cases of harassment and intimidation from women accessing these services as well as staff. One thing that has become abundantly clear is that harassment in this form isn’t measured by how many police reports are made. Contacting the police is the last thing you want to do when going through such a personal medical treatment.
“Last month, for example, we were contacted by a lady who has PTSD from the tactics of these groups. On her way out of the hospital following a termination for medical reasons she was confronted by an anti-choice group with graphic images of mutilated foetuses. She has since had to undergo therapy to recover from being exposed to this at the gates of a hospital after having such a dignified send off for her baby.
“We’re concerned by journalists that platform any group without doing their due diligence. In a world that looks set to overturn Roe v. Wade, it’s their responsibility to ensure that their audience knows who they are hearing from, as well as what their aims and motives are.”
Politicians have also raised concerns about the effect that misinformation from these groups could have. Responding to the uncovering of information regarding the links between Compassion Scotland and other religious groups, Scottish Green MSP Gillian Mackay said: “These revelations are very concerning.
“Nobody should be intimidating or abusing people who are accessing healthcare,” she added.
“A lot of clinicians and people accessing healthcare find these protests upsetting and traumatic, and they will take no comfort from the misleading claims of anti-choice protesters. My bill aims to ensure that nobody else is ever made to feel that way again.
“My consultation is open until August 11th, and I want to hear from as many people as possible. I want to ensure that the legislation is as robust as possible, and that we put a stop to this harassment for good."
Those in Scotland who have spent decades fighting for a woman's right to choose have also hit out at Compassion Scotland and the groups they work with.
A spokesperson for Abortion Rights Scotland, a national pro-choice campaign encompassing the trade union movement, said: "Abortion Rights Scotland has very serious concerns about the lack of detailed funding information supplied by these organisations, and who they may be aligned to.
"We continue to remain very confident that regardless of where in the world the anti choice protesters get their funding from it is clear that vast majority of the Scottish public find their disgraceful activities exhibited in recent weeks and months totally abhorrent.
"All patients and staff accessing health care facilities are entitled to do so with dignity and discretion and without harassment and intimidation. We look forward with anticipation to the summit promised by Ms Sturgeon to progress protective measures such as buffer zones around NHS facilities."
When asked about the evidence gathered by Third Force News, Ms McNicol refuted the suggestion that there were links between groups, adding that "the FOI responses speak for themselves".
She added: “We are proud to represent women in Scotland who do not support nationwide censorship zones outside hospitals and as well as other settings. Our position has rarely featured in this debate, and that is deeply regrettable in a democratic society. We hope that the media and politicians in Scotland will give us a fair hearing.
“Women facing unplanned pregnancies deserve access to compassionate emotional and practical support, including outside medical settings. We know that many babies are alive today because their mothers did receive that unexpected help. With recent research suggesting 15% of abortions are the result of coercion, that support is even more critical.
"Everyone agrees that harassment is wrong, and existing laws catch threatening and abusive behaviour. But this is not what we see during peaceful gatherings in Scotland. Freedom of Information requests obtained by our campaign show there were no recorded incidents of intimidation or harassment at thirteen different locations between 2016 and 2021 – the most recent data available.
"Censorship zones would prohibit peaceful, and often silent, gatherings in public places. Preventing the free assembly of women on public land and the exchange of information and ideas is undemocratic.
"We would encourage the Scottish Government not to take such a one-sided approach to this important issue. If they fail to listen, women will be denied choice, and access to life-saving support for them and their babies.
“Censorship zones would be an undemocratic, and potentially illegal, infringement of free expression. Scots have every right to offer support to women considering an abortion, including beside healthcare settings. The recently introduced private member’s bill would censor the expression of lawful speech in Scotland and create a dangerous precedent for the curtailment of other, counter-cultural views by future governments.
“Should this legislation find support in the Scottish Parliament, it will likely be subject to legal challenges by those who support civil liberties, and the right of women in difficult circumstances to receive compassionate help from other women. We urge the government to rule out supporting this bill early, to prevent a costly and unnecessary legal battle.”
Students for Life St Andrews, the APS, ADF and SPUC did not respond to requests for comment.