ACT News

Shane Rattenbury calls for abortion clinic exclusion zones to deter protesters

ACT Greens minister Shane Rattenbury has called for exclusion zones around Canberra's abortion clinics to thwart protesters who harassed or intimidated women seeking abortions.     

It comes after Canberra Goulburn's Catholic Archbishop led prayers during a vigil outside a city abortion clinic on Tuesday as part of a global pro-life movement in the lead-up to Easter.

Mr Rattenbury said the proposed legislation would create buffer zones similar to those in place in Tasmania, where protests were banned within 150 metres of abortion clinics. 

He said anyone who disagreed with abortion should be free to voice their beliefs, but not to upset or intimidate women outside clinics when they could be "vulnerable or in a difficult circumstance".

"This is not a freedom-of-speech issue; this is an issue of safe and accessible healthcare. 

"Women have the legal right to medical privacy and the human right to make choices about their own health without interference or harassment."

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Archbishop Christopher Prowse was among a clutch of anti-abortion demonstrators, many linked to religious groups, who gathered outside the ACT Health building in Moore Street.

Members of the group held rosary beads and displayed signs in support of the 40 Days for Life campaign, a worldwide movement that advocates  the eradication of abortion.

Supporters of the pro-life cause have prayed outside the clinic regularly for the past 16 years. 

ACT Right to Life Association president Bev Cains said the gathering was a vigil rather than a protest.

"We are not acting in a confrontational manner, people can come and go as they please.

"We are simply praying to hopefully raise the social conscience of people who may or may not be seeking an abortion."

Ms Cains believed the proposed exclusion zones would intrude on pro-life advocates' right to protest.

"The general philosophy is that so many people want to have only their opinion aired.

"We think we have to become more vocal and more open and more active if we are to raise the social conscience of Australians to the horrors of abortion."

Women's Centre for Health Matters health promotion officer Angela Carnovale said their right to protest should not impede on any woman's right to access healthcare.

"The protest has been going for some 16 years now and women are reporting to the workers in the clinic that they have been distressed by the protesters and by having to navigate that on their way to the clinic. 

"All it's doing is shaming, stigmatising and creating anxiety in the women accessing the clinic, it's not furthering the public debate on this issue, which is what they say they're aiming to do.

"Protesters should be pursuing conversations in other forums where those conversations can be had."

Ms Carnovale said the organisation would be keen to work with Minister Rattenbury to explore the possibility of introducing the zones in the ACT.

Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson said he believed the prayer vigil was "a peaceful activity". 

"The right to freedom of speech is an important one –  I would be reluctant to remove the right of any individual wishing to express their view, regardless of whether I agree with them or not.

"I encourage those who feel passionately about this issue to always treat others with respect and understanding and if there were any behaviour at this or any other protest that was unlawful then there are existing laws to deal with that."

An ACT Health spokeswoman said abortion was legal in the territory and access to safe termination services was important.

Students from the Australian National University began a push for exclusion zones around abortion clinics in response to the Civic protest in 2013. 

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