Anti-abortionists in Scotland are on the march, threatening the security of those working in family planning clinics. Colin Wright reports

The arrival in Scotland of an anti-abortion pressure group promising 'direct action' has prompted a strong response from the Scottish Executive and a leading health union.

Precious Life in Scotland is an offshoot of Precious Life in Northern Ireland, which campaigns outside family planning clinics and uses a range of pro-active techniques.

So far, the group has protested outside a Brook advisory clinic in Edinburgh, leading to its temporary closure last month. It has since reopened and reported a 15 per cent increase in demand for the morningafter pill on the day of its reopening.

Otherwise, the group - which insists it is non-violent - has done little except issue statements.

These include assertions such as, 'It is not buildings which kill babies but the people inside them', and that its members are prepared to go to jail for their beliefs.

Unison has listed other activities in guidance issued to health workers. It says that tactics employed by the group in Northern Ireland include 'chanting outside buildings, placing placards on the outside of buildings, handing out leaflets and pictures to service users and, in one case, starting a letter campaign aimed at the neighbours of a counsellor'.

The union goes on to express concern that 'activities of Precious Life in Scotland may incite others to commit criminal acts'. The seriousness with which Unison regards the potential actions of Precious Life is reflected in its safety recommendations to staff working in family planning clinics.

The guidelines include recommendations not to approach demonstrators, and to contact the police if demonstrators enter trust premises. They say it may be advisable for staff to arrive and depart in groups and to drive through any demonstrations with windows and sunroof closed and the car doors locked.

Jim Devine, Unison's senior officer for health in Scotland, says: 'This document has been released specifically in response to Precious Life in Scotland.

'In the past we have had anti-abortion groups, but we have never had threats of direct action, never had tactics such as a letter campaign to neighbours.

'The striking thing about this organisation, ' he adds, 'is that while they are picketing family planning clinics, they may be preventing some women from getting contraception, which may then result in an unwanted pregnancy.

'We wanted to act, in conjunction with the clear message issued by the health minister, to ensure health workers know that they have appropriate support and assistance.'

Scottish health minister Susan Deacon issued an unequivocal message to the group. 'I give these groups notice today - back off, ' she said. 'Do not promote your views in proximity to these facilities. I want you to withdraw voluntarily and I want you to do so immediately.'

She also said: 'I will not tolerate a situation where healthcare workers are harassed at work or at home simply because of the job they do.

'I will not tolerate a situation where people, particularly women and young people, have to walk through a gauntlet of often abusive demonstrators simply because they want to exercise their right to attend a clinic.' She said the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 could provide a legal basis for acting against such protesters.

Following this speech, Ms Deacon was widely reported in the press to be under police guard - something both she and the police had to deny in the light of allegations by opposition parties that the 'death threat' was nothing but spin. In fact, the reports had emanated from an adviser to first minister Donald Dewar, who has since left his post.

A survey by the Pro-Choice Alliance suggests that the NHS in Scotland is meeting the needs of those who want terminations. It shows that 98 per cent of abortions in Scotland - 11,893 of a total of 12,080 in 1998 - were carried out on the NHS compared with 74 per cent - 131,900 of a total of 177,871 for 1998 - in England and Wales.

It also shows that some hospitals in England and Wales may be in breach of the law by setting financial and social criteria to decide whether women qualify for NHS abortions. Of the 26 per cent of women in England who opted for a private abortion, 47 per cent had originally applied to the NHS.

Pro-Choice Alliance co-ordinator Jane Roe believes the arrival of Precious Life is a worrying development. 'These are American tactics fired by fundamental religious beliefs which their followers believe allow them to supersede the laws of the land.

'People who work in family planning clinics and those who attend will be in an emotional state anyway, and are quite likely to be threatened and frightened by this group.

'We believe that the abortion and family planning service is very good and any disruption to it by outside protest groups is extremely unwelcome.'

Abortion does not come within the Scottish Parliament's remit. It was felt that it might be an issue which could be hijacked by fundamentalists, leading to a situation in which women had to cross the border for treatment. But Precious Life in Scotland has raised the issue's profile. Precious Life declined to comment.