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In Victoria, Harassing Women at Abortion Clinics No Longer Counts As Free Speech

The government has signalled support for a bill that priorities safe access to medical treatment over the right to protest.
September 2, 2015, 2:25am

An Australian Sex Party supporter counter-protests anti-abortionists at Melbourne's Parliament House. All photos by the author.

If you've ever walked past an abortion clinic, you've more than likely encountered a small army of anti-abortion protesters camped outside.

For decades women who visit East Melbourne's Fertility Control Clinic have been intimidated and harassed by such a group: demonstrators who call themselves Helpers of God's Precious Infants.

The Helpers picket outside the Wellington Parade premises six days a week, clutching rosaries and crosses, and wielding graphic signs and factually inaccurate pamphlets about abortion and contraception. They chant and shout slogans such as "don't kill your baby" and "you are going into a slaughterhouse", and try to block women and staff from getting in and out of their cars. Protesters also often follow women and their partners along the footpath, waving fetal models smeared with fake blood.

The Helpers of God's Precious Infants protest group has been told to take their demonstrations to Spring St, away from their usual hangout outside East Melbourne's Fertility Control Clinic

But that's almost certain to change after the Victorian government this week confirmed its support for a bill establishing safe access zones around abortion clinics. Health Minister Jill Hennessy announced on Tuesday that the government will introduce a bill to Parliament before the end of the year which will ban protesters from going within a proposed 150 metres of fertility and reproductive health clinics.

The bill—an amendment to the Health and Wellbeing Act—will be based largely on a private member's bill brought by Sex Party MP Fiona Patten, who wants women to be able to access legal medical services without fear or intimidation.

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"I think this sort of protection for women should have been done decades ago but because it is linked to the highly emotional issue of abortion, no one wants to go there," Patten told the Huffington Post earlier this week. "This is actually violence against women—sometimes physical but mostly emotional and psychological—and it's at a time that's often very difficult."

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In passing the new legislation, Victoria would follow in the footsteps of Tasmania, which introduced safe access zones around abortion clinics in 2013. The ACT has also introduced a draft bill to create exclusion zones, preventing protestors from demonstrating outside abortion clinics and impeding on women's right to access healthcare.

Indeed, research has shown the mere presence of protestors outside abortion clinics has devastating consequences for women. In 2011, University of Melbourne masters graduate, Alexandra Humphries, studied 158 women who attended the Fertility Control Clinic and found nearly 80 percent were exposed to picketers, who in turn triggered "considerable distress" in their targets. The greater the women's exposure to picketers, the more guilt, shame, and anxiety they felt about their abortion.

Dr Susie Allanson, the Fertility Control Clinic's psychologist of 24 years, says the protesters pose a risk to patients who are often so traumatised they put off returning for follow-up appointments.

A man wearing a tie holds an anti-abortion protest sign

"Protesters can follow women, try and walk beside them and give them pamphlets that are anti-abortion, anti-contraception," Dr Allanson said in June. "They can say things like, 'you're a mother now, don't kill your baby, you'll need counseling after this, it will cause cancer, your relationship can break down.

"They will go up to cars and they will make it so that people struggle to get out of their car … I think that's appalling," she said.

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Anti-abortion groups argue that installing buffer zones around abortion clinics would violate their right to freedom of speech and freedom to protest. "The aim of the bill is to prevent women from hearing about the assistance we can give," the Helpers of God's Precious Infants group said in a statement last week. "It will criminalise peaceful activities. We could be jailed for peacefully praying, singing, displaying a poster, or handing out a pamphlet."

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Democratic Labour MP Rachel Carling-Jenkins, who opposes the new legislation, agrees. "People have the right to protest, and they have the right to that freedom of speech everywhere, it doesn't matter what the subject is," she said.

But this is not about free speech; Patten's—and now the government's—bill is not an attempt to silence anyone's views. It is about protecting the rights of women to live their lives free of harassment, intimidation, and violence—and to access necessary health services in privacy.

Every day this week the Helpers have been stationed at the gates of Melbourne's Parliament House car park, pushing pamphlets that condemn abortion at every woman who walks past, and waving large banners and placards as politicians drive in. On Wednesday morning, members of the Sex Party rallied alongside them, toting signs that read: "Wrong message, Right place to say it!"

More Sex Party supporters humbugging the relocated anti-abortionists

Because protesters are perfectly within their right to spew forth their hateful, damning messages onto the steps of Parliament House if they please—they can brandish their blood-stained posters on Spring Street, lobby their local members of parliament, and publish their opinions online to their heart's content. But they do not have the right to harass, abuse or invade the privacy of others.

As Fiona Patten puts it: "Women should have a right to walk anywhere in Victoria without harassment, intimidation, or fear of assault—let alone when they are entering a medical facility.

"If the discussion was around people harassing parents and children entering vaccination clinics, or interfering with people entering blood-donation facilities, there would be an uproar."

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