Safe access to abortion clinics must be guaranteed by law

This article was first published in The Age.

This week the Victorian Parliament should seize the opportunity to end more than two decades of daily harassment of women. For too long, women attending abortion clinics have run the gauntlet of intimidation and harassment just to see their doctor. A law being debated in Parliament on Tuesday will address this abuse.

The Safe Access Bill will create 150-metre zones around Victorian health services that provide abortions. In these zones, the bill prohibits besetting, harassing, intimidating, interfering with, hindering or obstructing people accessing the clinic. The bill will also prohibit recording people accessing the clinic or communicating about abortions in that zone in a manner that is reasonably likely to cause distress or anxiety.

We encourage all parliamentarians to support the bill. Here's why. 

For more than 20 years, extremists who oppose contraception and abortion have beset the Fertility Control Clinic in east Melbourne every day. Helpers of God's Precious Infants seek to coerce women arriving to see their doctor for abortion, pap tests, contraception and other vital healthcare.

Women are followed alighting trams and cars. Strangers get in women's faces and spaces; they call them "child murderers", and threaten dire and ill-founded medical, spiritual and psychological consequences. Displays are graphic and offensive: dismembered fetuses and comparisons to the Holocaust, lynching, slaughterhouse and sin.

Women and their companions may be shoved, their entry to the clinic blocked. A four-year-old child was once targeted: "Your mummy is going to kill your baby brother or sister."

Understandably, patients and their families can be seriously affected. They might enter the clinic frightened, teary and angry. Heightened emotional distress can cause additional, unnecessary physical pain with medical treatments. Some women suffer long-term distress. Some delay urgent medical care or follow-up.

This is not a benign, peaceful protest. Police have secured convictions for threats to kill, obscenity, assault and murder. Clinic security guard Steve Rogers was fatally shot in 2001.

How has this sustained abuse continued for so long – in broad daylight in a modern society, and even as a royal commission spotlights family violence against women? In short, the law does not adequately protect against the abuse.

The clinic asked the Melbourne City Council to address the nuisance caused by the anti-abortionists, but the council said it was a matter to be fixed by the police. Police can, and do, intervene, but only when a crime is committed. The clinic thought the council had a duty to address the nuisance under Victoria's Public Health and Wellbeing Act, so it took the matter to the Supreme Court to try to compel the council to do more.

In August 2015, the clinic lost its bid and the court declined to compel the council to fix the situation. The disappointing Supreme Court decision retained the status quo, highlighting instead the urgent need for law reform.

Rarely does a winning defendant in a case respond like Melbourne's Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, who said he took "no pleasure" from the victory and the continuing "vile behaviour", and that the extremists "show little respect for the rights of women" and "intimidate women at what is a vulnerable time in their lives".

The government's bill for safe access zones around abortion providers is a welcome step towards ridding our society of all forms of violence against women.

Of course, anti-abortionists have a right to share their views, but human rights law requires a balance between the legitimate rights of free speech and protest, and women's rights to privacy, dignity and safe access to their doctor. Currently, that balance is skewed. Women's privacy, dignity and safety are subordinated to the liberties of extremists to push their views on the captive audience of clinic patients and staff.

Human rights law not only permits, but requires, authorities to ensure safe access to reproductive health services. If the bill is passed, anti-abortionists will remain free to express their views – everywhere, except within an access zone.

Tasmania and ACT now have safe access zone legislation, and similar zones have been in place in the United States and Canada for decades. US and Canadian courts have ruled that sensible safe access zones do not unlawfully limit rights to free expression and assembly. The Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission's detailed submission to the Supreme Court case supported women's right to safe access. Notably, during the case, Melbourne City Council abandoned its arguments about anti-abortionists' rights to free speech. They simply weren't persuasive.

Safe access zone legislation has support from stalwarts in the battle to defend the right to protest, such as Trades Hall and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, and also from women's health groups and Australian Medical Association Victoria.

Community attitudes have clearly raced ahead of the law. Polling suggests only 30 per cent of people think protests outside abortion providers should be legal. We urge our political leaders on Spring Street – government, opposition and crossbench alike – to support the introduction of safe access zones. Women must be able to realise their right to safely and privately access legal health services of their choice.

Dr Susie Allanson is the clinic psychologist at the Fertility Control Clinic and Emily Howie is the director of advocacy and research at the Human Rights Law Centre, which acted for the clinic in its Supreme Court case.