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The Complicated Debate Over Banning Abortion Protests in Canberra

A Canberra politician wants to grant women safer access to abortions while respecting freedom of assembly.
August 19, 2015, 1:06am

Image via Flickr user Elvert Barnes

There's only one abortion clinic in Canberra. It's in the city's CBD, inside an office building, and you'll find protesters outside most weekdays.

The ACT Right to Life Association are behind the protests, which they prefer to describe as vigils. Whatever you call the gatherings, they might soon become illegal thanks to a new bill proposed by ACT Legislative Assembly member Shane Rattenbury.

Bev Cains, the director of the Right to Life Association, obviously isn't happy. As she sees it, the protests are completely innocuous. "People are actually just praying or standing quietly. There are some signs that say 'pray to end abortion' but nobody is making any visible signs other than the prayers."

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But for the women who are seeking a termination or advice inside the clinic, the group of people toting anti-abortion signage don't need to approach them to make them feel threatened. This is why, despite the lack of any physical or aggressive confrontations, Shane is trying to create an "exclusion zone" around the building to shift protests away from the clinic. "This is about enabling women to have privacy and dignity when they go to have what is often a very difficult medical procedure," Shane explained to VICE.

Here's what the bill proposes: "Protests and other public displays regarding abortion" would be banned out the front of the building and on the streets opposite. These exclusion zones would be effective between 8AM and 6PM every day the clinic is open.

Because there's only one clinic in the territory, the legislation would only affect a few streets, but it's written in a way that would apply to any approved medical facility. If another clinic was created, that could be protected too. It's an important caveat, because currently the building is slated for sale in the next five years, which would likely see the clinic relocated.

The bill is also careful to account for future shifts in how people protest. It explicitly bans photography and filming of patients, even though protesters in Canberra have never employed this tactic. Despite this, Shane's reasons that while "we've not had that problem explicitly in the ACT, we've seen that type of activity emerging in America, so we're staying ahead of the curve."

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If anyone goes against the bill's prohibition of "all forms of protest, by any means, and from any side of the debate" they'll face a fine of $3,500. If they take photos or recordings of someone entering, they'll face up to six months in prison while copping a $7,000 fine.

All in all, it's a well constructed bill. It's flexible, accommodates future changes, and importantly doesn't discriminate between pro-life and pro-choice protests. It deals with protests as delicately as it can, keeping changes to a minimum. The question is, are we OK with limiting a group's right to protest?

In Australia, everyone has the right to freedom of assembly as long as they keep it peaceful—even if their protest is kind of gross. And while it's sometimes frustrating, you can't limit a group's rights just because you disagree with them.

That being said, you can limit a group's rights if they're deemed legitimately dangerous. As the Governor General's office explains, when it's in the interest of public health, national security, or to protect the rights and freedoms of others, it's a-okay to restrict freedom of assembly. Take the Queensland legislation which bans public gatherings of certain bikie groups.

Plus, the "right" guaranteeing freedom of assembly isn't iron-clad in the first place. In fact, the Governor General's office outlines "no Commonwealth legislation that enshrines the right to freedom of assembly and association in all circumstances." The right actually comes from international treaties we've signed, not our constitution.

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In America, where the right to free speech is constitutionally enshrined, similar exclusion zone laws have passed. In Colorado, the law even held up against a challenge in the Supreme Court.

But there's a difference between American cases and the one in Canberra. American anti-abortion protesters have been known to approach women, so it's much easier to argue that their protests aren't peaceful. Despite the creepy signage, those in Bev's group do keep to themselves.

However, by choosing to protest right outside the clinic, the ACT Right to Life Association might still be getting in the way of women's freedom and privacy. As Shane sees it, "there's a basic human right to seek and receive medical treatment unimpeded," and when the group is right there to display their adamant disapproval, a woman entering can't feel great.

That's why the bill isn't about stopping the protests, it's just about moving them. Shane stresses he's more than happy for protests to continue, just not directly outside the clinic. He suggests the Association protest outside of the territory's Legislative Assembly instead. "If you have a problem with the legislation, take it up with the legislators, not the women seeking the service."

All things considered, we've landed in a complex situation where it's fair to ask: can this legislation actually pass in Canberra?

Maybe. The Liberal party immediately announced that they wouldn't support the bill, but Labour isn't sure yet. Right now, they're advocating a voluntary approach to shifting protesters. I asked Bev if her organisation would move if Labour asked nicely. She said no. Apparently, "many people in our organisation would stay even to the point of going to prison."

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All things considered, the bill's chances are still decent. Last year, Tasmania successfully passed very similar legislation, banning protests within 150 metres of abortion clinics.

Even with Tasmania's success on their side, Shane needs Labour there too. "I'm going to be twisting the Labour Party's arm. There're some good people in the party here and I'll do my best." The plan is to bring the bill in front of the legislative assembly in September, so there's still time to sway Labour.

But Shane's legislation may have already had an effect. Bev's group now have haters—some people have recently taken it upon themselves to see the protesters move on. "We do have some people who approach and say we shouldn't be there. But we didn't have anybody like that until Shane Rattenbury started talking."

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