Safe access zones to become law in NSW

NSW MLC Penny Sharpe. Photo: Pip Hinman

Supporters of safe access zones at abortion clinics are celebrating after the NSW Parliament overwhelmingly supported such zones in the early hours of June 8.

The bill passed with 61 to 18 votes and was co-sponsored by NSW Labor MLC Penny Sharpe and National MLC Trevor Khan. More than 40 people spoke during debate, and while many amendments were moved none were carried. The NSW  Minister for Women, Tanya Davies, and the former minister, Pru Goward, voted against it.

The bill amends the Public Health Act and makes it an offence for people to harass others within 150 metres of a reproductive health clinic, with the exception of church grounds, the forecourt outside NSW Parliament and during election campaigns.

Outside parliament on June 7, Sharpe told supporters of the bill: “Our laws are failing to protect women. Nowhere else … is this behaviour tolerated. This bill will guarantee that women in New South Wales have the same protection as other states and territories when it comes to making decisions about their reproductive health, free from the interference and harassment of others.”

Khan said he was a co-sponsor because it was about “giving women the right to privacy, dignity and safety when they seek medical treatment”.

Kitty Grozdich from Marie Stopes, a non-government organisation providing contraception and safe abortion services, spoke to the June 7 gathering about the urgency of getting safe access zones around abortion clinics.

The Public Health Amendment (Safe Access to Reproductive Health Clinics) Bill will make it an offence to harass someone trying to enter or exit a reproductive health clinic within a 150 metres radius. Those who cause distress or anxiety to people entering or leaving the clinic could face fines or up to 12 months’ jail. It will also be an offence to distribute photos, videos or recordings of people without their consent within the zone.

Tasmania, Victoria, the ACT and the Northern Territory have laws authorising safe access zones around abortion clinics, and protective legislation is being discussed in Western Australia and Queensland.

Victoria enacted safe access zone laws in 2016. However, they are being contested in the High Court by anti-abortion campaigner Kathleen Clubb, who was fined $5000 for breaching the zone. She is said to be assisted by lawyers working for the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL).

Sharpe told the gathering that the NSW government had joined the High Court case challenging the validity of safe access laws. The NSW  submision says Victoria's safe-access zone laws are not designed to inhibit political communication but communications "designed to deter clients from having an abortion, which is a personal and private medical choice".

Sharpe described the bill as “proportionate”, saying it did not deny anyone their right to free speech.

Adrianne Walters, a senior lawyer with the Human Rights Law Centre, who has applied to provide expert assistance to the High Court, said on May 25 that the case raises questions about balancing the rights of women seeking access to medical care and the implied freedom of political communication in the Constitution.

“Free speech is not a license to harm others with impunity. Our position is that Victoria’s safe access zone laws strike the right balance between the freedom of political communication and a woman’s right to privately and safely see her doctor,” said Walters.

Nurses, doctors and clinicians attended the gathering. Paul Nattress, a practice manager at the Private Clinic in Surry Hills, said that women and workers have had to deal with protesters for 15 years.

“If this bill passes it will be such a relief for patients and staff not to have to face the day-in, day-out harassment by these ‘protesters’," he said.

“Let’s be realistic. They are not really protesters. They are really just standing there to create an atmosphere of intimidation, fear and guilt to try to deter patients from coming to the clinic. This will be such a relief, if it does pass. We will have fewer upset women.

“One thing that women often remember more about the procedure itself if the presence of protesters, which is really unfair and unnecessary for such a common procedure.”

Asked by Green Left Weekly if she thought this bill, if made law, would help the campaign to decriminalise abortion in NSW, Sharpe said she hoped so and that she would continue to work for that outcome after safe access was won.

Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi said the new law was a “victory for the fundamental right of women to access a medical service in safety, dignity and privacy”.

“For too long, women ... have been told to put up with intimidation and harassment. It is time to put sexist dogmas that seek to dictate women’s choices into the dust bin of history where they belong," she said. 

“A year ago, NSW Parliament debated my bill to decriminalise abortion and create safe access zones, a first in New South Wales history. I’m ecstatic and so proud that our campaign has now come to this point that we now have safe access in New South Wales. 

“I hope in the near future we can return to parliament to decriminalise abortion, and ensure that women and their doctors within these safe access zones are not operating under the shadow of criminality and have the unambiguous legal right to make reproductive choices.

“This is especially a win for women in rural and regional NSW who have had to bear the brunt of harassment,” she concluded.