Advocates of women’s rights have had a battle on their hands of late, with conservative MP Fred Nile introducing a series of Bills into parliament in May of this year which, if passed, would make it harder to get abortions.
Amongst Mr Nile’s proposals are laws criminalising the termination of a foetus with a detectable heartbeat, and provisions requiring women who are considering an abortion to view an ultrasound image of the foetus and undergo counselling.
Women’s groups say that, if passed, these laws would simply add to the immense stress that women already face when obtaining an abortion.
But in what is undoubtedly a win for women around the nation, Victoria has recently announced that it will introduce ‘buffer zones’ to prevent pro-life advocates from demonstrating outside abortion clinics around the state.
Bill Introduced by Sex Party MP
The Bill was originally introduced into the Upper House as a private members’ Bill by Sex Party MP Fiona Patten, but the Victorian Government will introduce its own Bill based upon Ms Patten’s Bill to account for technical and administrative issues.
Patten believes that action is needed to ensure that women and staff are able to enter these facilities safely, stating:
‘What we need to just ensure is that women can get off a tram, can park their cars and they can have some space where they are not going to be harassed, or intimidated, or challenged with offensive posters. And the staff as well, can safely get to work and get to the clinic.’
The amended Bill, which is to be developed in consultation with the Department of Justice and Regulation, will exclude protestors from coming within 150 metres of fertility and reproductive health clinics, and will also impose criminal penalties for those who violate the rules.
The Bill was introduced following ongoing reports from women and medical staff who claim that they are constantly approached, harassed and even assaulted by pro-life activists outside abortion clinics.
In one case in 2001, a man named Peter James Knight walked into the East Melbourne Fertility Clinic bearing a rifle and shot and killed a security guard. He was arrested with 16 litres of kerosene, three lighters, torches and 30 gags in his possession, and told police that he intended to kill everyone in the clinic by burning them alive, and that he had further plans to attack other clinics in Melbourne.
Mr Knight was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2002, with a non-parole period of 23 years.
Staff who work at the clinic say that anti-abortion protestors do not see their actions as threatening, nor understand the immense psychological impact it can have on those entering the clinic.
Speaking to the media last week, Dr Susie Allanson, who has worked at the clinic for 24 years, stated that:
‘The extremists don’t have a sense of how inappropriate their behaviour is. They say that they’re counselling, they’re praying, that’s all. They don’t appreciate that what they’re actually doing is experienced by women as really very threatening.’
Tasmania was the first Australian state to adopt buffer zones around abortion clinics in 2013, and similar zones exist in countries such as the United States.
Freedom of Speech vs. Right to Choose?
Pro-life supporters have hit back, saying that the Bill unjustifiably limits freedom of speech and the right to protest.
One group, the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, which regularly holds anti-abortion protests outside clinics around the country, argues that abortion clinics have long concocted claims of abuse to protect themselves from losing money from clients.
The group has also stated that:
‘once the right to protest is excluded for one specific issue, the right to protest any issue is likely to be denied by people in power who will decide what issues are and are not acceptable to them and able to be protested.’
In contrast, doctors at the clinic claim to have observed pro-life protestors physically preventing women from getting into the facility.
Melbourne Mayor Robert Doyle is keen to strike a balance between freedom of speech and women’s rights, saying:
‘It’s a pretty delicate balancing act and we’ll continue to work with Government and with the clinic. People have a right to protest but they don’t have a right to impinge on other people’s rights, and that’s unfortunately what has happened at that clinic from time to time.’
The Bill is expected to be introduced into Parliament later this year.