The Victorian government has pledged its support for legislation that would ban anti-abortion campaigners from protesting within 150 metres of an abortion or fertility clinic.
In a deal with Sex Party MP Fiona Patten, the government will introduce a bill before the end of the year that will impose harsh penalties on anti-abortion campaigners that harass staff or patients going to and from clinics in the state.
The announcement comes after Sex Party MP Fiona Patten introduced a private member’s bill that would set up buffer zones of 150 metres around clinics.
The government has not indicated whether it will support the terms of Ms Patten’s bill, but has said it would review the legislation and introduce something similar this year.
Ms Patten said protest free zones are critical to the mental health and physical safety of staff and patients.
“What we need to 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,” she said.
“And so the staff, as well, can safely get to work and get to the clinic.”
Clinical psychologist Dr Susie Allanson has worked for 24 years at the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne, which provides pregnancy termination and other reproductive and fertility health services.
Anti-abortion protesters are out the front of the clinic for several hours most mornings, and Dr Allanson said it can have severe psychological effects on staff and women entering the facility.
“You do have this sense that you’re unsafe,” she said. “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.”
But anti-abortion groups believe such laws would infringe their right to free speech and free assembly.
Dr Katrina Haller, from Right to Life Australia, says the protesters are not harassing women or acting aggressively.
“We’re not doing anything defamatory,” Dr Haller said. “There are limits on freedom of speech but we are offering these women help.
“I’ve been outside the Wellington Parade abortuary. I’ve said we can you offer you something better than what this place can offer you.”
The Fertility Control Clinic has experienced the dangers of protesters first hand. In 2001, a security guard named Stephen Rogers was murdered at the clinic by anti-abortion campaigner Peter James Knight.
But Dr Allanson said the incident did not result in substantial reform to better protect clinic staff and patients.
“After the murder of our security guard we advocated, we were working our butts off trying to get someone to listen to us, someone to bring in safe access zones,” Dr Allanson said.
“I think back then we kind of felt like this lone voice in the wilderness.”
Dr Allanson said she is confident the new bill, if passed, will lead to further legislation across the country.
The private member’s bill introduced by Ms Patten set the exclusion zones at 150 metres, but she has said she is willing to negotiate on that and other details.
“I’m particularly happy to get government support for the objective of my bill,” Ms Patten told reporters on Tuesday. “I’m confident we’ve got the numbers.”
The terms of the Sex Party bill were framed around Tasmanian legislation passed in 2013.
Health Minister Jill Hennessy said the government supports those terms in principle, but will consider and debate key elements of the bill, like the 150 metre radius.
“We don’t want to create a set of rules where we produce unintended consequences,” she said. “Ultimately we’re going to probably have to land on a distance.”
The Greens have indicated they will vote for the bill, while the Liberals will have a free vote, meaning the bill will pass.
-With AAPRead More