Where do you draw the line? Reconsidering safety zones at Victorian abortion clinics

By Zoya Patel
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There is a story we tell ourselves about abortion. It is a story of pain, of grief, of a haunting never-ending sense of wrongness. It is a story of ruined lives, of risk and dodgy doctors and rusty knives. It is a story designed to frighten women, but it is also a story born out of some truths – for many decades in Australia, abortion was a crime, and to terminate an unwanted pregnancy was an experience of trauma for many women.

This story does not have to be reality for Australian women today, at least in the states of Western Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, where abortion is legal.

…one could argue that anti-abortion protestors are not exercising their free speech so much as demanding a particular behaviour from women according to their beliefs, which don’t value our autonomy over our very own bodies.

In these states and territories, women have access to safe, legal abortion and sexual health advice that means, for most women, an abortion is a safe and responsible way to address an unwanted pregnancy. Not a decision made lightly, but not necessarily a defining moment in their lives.

Despite the law’s recognition of a woman’s right to her own body, since the opening of the first abortion clinic in Victoria in 1972, women were plagued by anti-abortion protestors when they approached the building.

Protestors would harass and heckle women, record their entry to the clinic on video, block the footpath, while loudly praying and singing anti-abortion messages. Their actions were perfectly legal up until 2014, when The Fertility Control Clinic in Melbourne first brought forth a case against Melbourne City Council for failing to act against the protestors, which eventually led the Victorian Government to introduce legislation that mandated a ‘safety zone’ of 150 metres around clinics; where no protester is allowed. Now, those same laws are under threat as a case goes before the High Court, arguing that safe access zones impede the free speech of protestors.

This is one of the few instances where limits on free speech were in fact welcomed by the progressive left. In fact, one could argue that anti-abortion protestors are not exercising their free speech so much as demanding a particular behaviour from women according to their beliefs, which don’t value our autonomy over our very own bodies.

The fact is that even though abortion is legal in Victoria, and has been for some time, anti-abortion protestors reinforce a commonly held notion that a woman’s first duty is to society, her second to a foetus, and lastly, she may consider her own wellbeing. This is a notion that has been reinforced through so many mediums – through the way sexual assault and rape charges are dealt with in our judicial system; through the way we manage and respond to domestic violence; through the way we raise girls to know the bare minimum about sexual pleasure, but equip them with every possible lesson on pregnancy and childbirth.

Each new step forward on one of these issues contributes to the broader tapestry of women’s sexual health and reproductive lives, which should ultimately be guided by freedom of choice, access to the best possible health care, and self-direction.

…the High Court is already set to hear a case challenging the safe access zones in Victoria, brought forward by an anti-abortion protestor who was charged in 2016.

I can only imagine how harrowing it would be to approach an abortion clinic for an appointment and be stared down by groups of intimidating protestors (often with a high male contingency), who have no interest in the particulars of your life or the decision you’re making for yourself, but are prepared to judge you nonetheless.

One hundred and fifty metres may seem like a small distance, but when it means there is 150 metres between you and the person hurling abuse at you, or even ‘peacefully’ imposing their religious views on you, every metre must feel like a blessing.

Despite the importance and government support for these laws, however, the High Court is already set to hear a case challenging the safe access zones in Victoria, brought forward by an anti-abortion protestor who was charged in 2016. The key argument is whether the laws impede on protestors’ freedom of political speech or not.

But anti-abortion protests are not about politically held viewpoints. They are not about beseeching fellow citizens to vote a certain way, or join a political movement. They are aimed at each specific woman, impeding on her the right to have an abortion and telling her to instead bear a child that she may not want.

It is only in the last 50 years that we have had anything resembling self-determination, and even that continues to be under threat as global politics head in a more conservative direction.

When seen this way, the audacity of these protests is staggering. That a group of people feel justified in expecting strangers to drastically alter the course of their own lives for no reason other than a greater connection to the concept of an unborn foetus over the health and wellbeing of an adult human is difficult to understand.

That’s why it’s so incredibly important that the Victorian Government is supported to maintain safe access zones. The case in front of the High Court is expected to be heard later this year, and its outcome could have an impact on a similar case regarding safe access zones in Tasmania.

As women, we have endured so much control and disempowerment when it comes to our reproductive health and rights. It is only in the last 50 years that we have had anything resembling self-determination, and even that continues to be under threat as global politics head in a more conservative direction.

Victoria is leading the way when it comes to abortion access, and the test is now to see whether strength can be maintained in the face of pressure to repeal these laws.

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