A very necessary piece of legislation has passed the upper house. In the early hours of Friday morning, after 12 hours of deliberation, the Victorian Legislative Council voted to restrict abortion protesters to 150 metres from clinics around the state. People who restrict passage, threaten, film, insult, or follow patients will be liable to fines or even jail time.
As inferred, this was a long time coming. Most Victorian abortion facilities have endured some form of harassment over the years, but the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne has really taken the brunt. A group calling themselves Helpers of God's Precious Infants have staged protests outside the building Monday to Saturday, for over 20 years. The group was also implicated in a murder in 2001.
In 2001 a loner from NSW named Peter James Knight began his pro-life crusade when he found a page for "pregnancy termination services" in the Yellow Pages. It inspired Knight to join the Helpers of God's Precious Infants whose members mostly kept their distance, later telling investigators he was a bit weird even for them. But they failed to alert anyone and a few weeks later he stormed the clinic with a high-powered rifle and a bag of ammunition. After fatally shooting a security guard he was taken down by two men in the waiting room. Knight received a life sentence in 2002.
This was an extreme incident but it wasn't in isolation. In June, after years of watching their patients being harassed, management at the East Melbourne clinic took the City Council to court. Over two days barristers argued the city had a duty to protect their patients, but the case was overruled. Judge J McDonald concluded the council was doing everything it could under existing laws, which inspired local MP Fiona Patten to amend the law with a private member's bill.
Fiona Patten is the leader of the Sex Party and member for the Northern Metropolitan Region. In August she introduced a bill to restrict protests to 150 metres from abortion clinics, which was immediately supported by the State Government. As Fiona told VICE in September, "people have been entirely supportive on both sides of parliament. It's very likely Liberal will allow a conscience vote, and if they do, I believe the vast majority would support the bill."
Last night she was proven right. Legislation was passed overwhelmingly, 31 votes to eight, and "Safe Access Zones" will come into effect from July 1, 2016. From that date any activity that's broadly considered intimidating will be banned. Individuals will still be allowed within the zone, but protesting will be strictly limited.
As minister for Health, Jill Hennessy, wrote in a media release, "women have a right to medical privacy and the right to access a legal health service without experiencing harassment and intimidation."
Similar laws already exist in several US states and Canada. Tasmania was the first Australian state to introduce similar legislation in 2013.
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