For years, women have had to endure attempts by a small numbers of religious extremists trying to humiliate and shame them outside abortion clinics.
Two states and both territories have passed laws banning this harassment. Now, New South Wales could be doing the same, as two bills are about to be bought before the state parliament.
NSW Labor MLC Penny Sharpe will introduce a bill in May which would enact safe access zones of 150 metres around health services that provide family planning, reproductive health and abortion services.
“Every day in NSW women are harassed, intimidated and have their privacy invaded when they enter abortion clinics. It is an extremely distressing experience. This sort of unacceptable behaviour is not tolerated anywhere else — in the workplace, in the home, in other health or public facilities — it should not be tolerated outside clinics”, Sharpe told Green Left Weekly.
“The current laws fail to protect women from this harassment while similar laws in Victoria, the ACT, Tasmania and now the Northern Territory have shown that safe access zones work.”
Sharpe's bill would prohibit harassment, intimidation, interference, threats and obstruction, as well as barring the recording of video and photos without consent.
She said pro-choice doctors support safe access zones because they are concerned about patient privacy and patient wellbeing.
“Doctors and other staff at abortion clinics are also subject to harassment and intimidation. Safe access zones for staff are an occupational health and safety issue that also needs to be addressed.”
Some have argued that such laws infringe the right to free speech. But Sharpe refutes this. “Safe access zones provide a space where women can be assured of safety and privacy when accessing medical treatment while still preserving the ability of those who are anti-choice to speak freely about their views.
“The right to free speech means that those who have an issue with current abortion laws [which criminalise the procedure] can protest those laws.
“Free speech, however, does not mean that you have the right to intimidate, harass, push, jostle, argue with, film, stalk, hinder or block a woman who is seeking medical treatment from a clinic outside that clinic.”
Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi also supports safe access zones — it is a key part of her Abortion Law Reform (Miscellaneous Acts Amendment) Bill 2016 to remove abortion from the NSW Crimes Act and treat it as a medical procedure. This bill will also be debated in May.
Sharpe told Green Left Weekly that she would be supporting Faruqi's bill and believes others from Labor will too. “Removing abortion from the Crimes Act in NSW is long overdue” she said, echoing the views of the majority of people in NSW.
The Medical Journal of Australia ran an article last November which argued that the abortion laws in NSW and Queensland were outdated and should be reformed. Professor of Law at Queensland University, Heather Douglas, and Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at James Cook University, Caroline de Costa, said the uncertainty of the law meant that doctors are still cautious about providing abortion, and also about providing information.
Sharpe agrees. “The legal underpinnings that support the provision of legal abortion in NSW are fragile.
"Removing abortion from the Crimes Act will give the women’s reproductive rights a stronger legal footing and hopefully lead to great awareness, access and support for women who need to terminate a pregnancy.
“I look forward to supporting the decriminalisation bill when it comes before the parliament. The vote on this bill will be subject to a conscience vote for Labor MPs. I anticipate many will support the bill.”
This is welcome news. It means that, after a campaign lasting several decades, women in NSW can look forward to having reproductive rights with the same protections and rights as those in most states and both territories. Queensland and NSW are the last two states where abortion is still covered by crimes acts.