Abortion clinic exclusion zones should not be under threat

Imagine if every time you arrived to see your doctor, you were confronted by a group of complete strangers who invaded your personal space with offensive displays and frightening medical misinformation. Or if every day when you turned up at work, you were verbally abused and accosted.

For the patients and staff members of the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic, this was a daily reality. That is, until the 2016 introduction of safe access zones around abortion clinics successfully ended this relentless campaign of abuse and intimidation.

Fertility clinic patients do not need to be confronted by protesters.

Fertility clinic patients do not need to be confronted by protesters.Credit:Shutterstock

Similar zones now operate in Tasmania, the ACT, NSW and the NT.

But this week the ability for Victorian women to safely access legal reproductive health care is again under threat, with an anti-abortionist challenging these zones in the High Court, in a case that has just commenced.

For more than two decades, women were forced to walk the gauntlet to the busy clinic to access abortion, contraception, pap tests and other essential healthcare. Anti-abortionists would harass and intimidate women from the moment they parked their car, physically blocking their entrance to the clinic and calling them "child murderers".

Many women arrived at reception visibly shaken or crying; some felt so intimidated that they delayed or avoided returning for essential follow-up appointments, with detrimental impacts to their health and well-being.

The unrelenting presence of the anti-abortionists also had a significant toll on staff, who often felt too daunted to leave the building. This sense of trepidation was not unfounded. In 2001, Steve Rogers, the clinic’s security guard was tragically shot dead by anti-abortionist Peter James Knight. Knight entered the clinic armed with two bags of weapons, including a high-powered Winchester rifle. He later spoke of his plan to massacre all 26 patients and 15 staff members present on the day.

Over the years, police secured convictions for assault, obscenity, threat to kill and murder but nothing changed. The anti-abortionists would be back the very next day. Their presence outside the clinic the morning after Steve’s shooting was particularly traumatising for staff.

A failed legal attempt by the clinic in the Supreme Court in 2015 to compel the Melbourne City Council to remove the anti-abortionists highlighted the inadequacy of existing legal protections to safeguard patients and staff of abortion clinics in Victoria. Following a mounting campaign off the back of this case the Victorian Government introduced safe access zone laws, which make it an offence to harass and intimidate a person accessing an abortion clinic within a 150 metre buffer zone. Such zones have existed in Canada and the United States for decades.

The impact in Victoria after they were introduced was dramatic and instant. Staff no longer felt threatened, and for the first time in more than twenty years, women could visit their doctor free from demeaning harassment and intimidation.

Sadly, not all have been content to respect these important boundaries. This week the High Court will hear a challenge to the legality of these safe access zones made by anti-abortionist Kathleen Clubb. Ms Clubb was convicted of communicating with a couple about abortion outside the clinic in a manner deemed "reasonably likely to cause distress or anxiety". She argues that the safe access laws breach her constitutional right to freely communicate about political matters.

The freedom of political communication, implied in the Australian Constitution is an important right. But it is not a licence to harm and subject others to fear and intimidation, and must be balanced against the rights of women to safely access legal healthcare.

Anti-abortionists such as Ms Clubb are free to express their views on this issue outside these zones widely throughout Victoria. They are free to protest outside the steps of parliament, and communicate robustly with the general public in an attempt to change public opinion on the issue. What they are not entitled to do is attack the privacy, dignity and wellbeing of women visiting their doctor.

Protecting safe access zones is about more than ensuring the safety, dignity and privacy of women accessing legal health care and the ability for staff members to go to work each day without fear or trepidation. It speaks volumes to our capacity as a society to genuinely address inequalities for women.

Dr Susie Allanson worked as a clinical psychologist at the Fertility Control Clinic for 26 years, Katie Robertson is a senior associate at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, which acted pro-bono for the clinic in the 2015 Supreme Court challenge, and is representing the clinic in this week’s High Court case.

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