Hateful protesters victimise the vulnerable
Anti-abortion protesters gather outside a courthouse. Protests such as these will soon be banned from within a certain distance of abortion clinics in Tasmania. Photo: Barry Baker
Ever driven past an abortion clinic?
Think you wouldn't know if you'd ever driven past an abortion clinic?
They are the places where you will increasingly see hordes of men and women silently protesting. Occasionally, they chant or pray.
They often parade placards and banners, with verses from the Bible or images of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes they shout. Sometimes those women have to face offensive and graphic pictures designed to frighten them.
These protesters hand out misinformation about contraception and abortion.
It is through these hordes that women about to have abortions must navigate. Through the placards, through the shaming stares, the eyes filled with rebuke, past those biblical verses. And sometimes these people will follow women up to the clinic gate, whispering that what they are about to do is murder. Sometimes, as I drive past one of these demonstrations, I feel the terrible urge to get out of the car and run through shouting, ''Get your rosaries off my ovaries!'' Or something else completely unseemly. Only because then they would pay attention to my craziness instead of harassing the women seeking abortion.
Think women who've made up their minds about abortion feel OK about these silent protests?
In 2011, Victorian research based on 158 women, by Alexandra Humphries, found that women are devastated by these demonstrations. About 80 per cent were exposed to picketers and the greatest feelings of shame and guilt came from that exposure. These women were well-supported by their partners, friends and family in their decision. Yet these strangers made them feel anxious and afraid.
In Tasmania, that's all about to stop - so long as new legislation gets passed. Tasmanian women are about to have their rights protected in a way that no other Australian women have with the introduction of exclusion zones around abortion clinics.
Last Friday, the Tasmanian Minister for Health, Michelle O'Byrne, announced she would move to amend the state's abortion law to decriminalise abortion, to bring the state into line with Victoria and the ACT where the procedure is covered by health regulations. (Sadly, the response from her opposition counterpart was to label reproductive rights a ''distraction''.) But the exclusion laws - to be named access zones here - will be a first for this country. Susan Fahey, managing solicitor at the Women's Legal Service of Tasmania, says a number of women's and other community organisations in the state lobbied for the zones, which already exist in some parts of both Canada and the US.
She says that although Tasmania does not yet have the same level of protest outside abortion clinics in mainland states, many organisations wanted to ensure women could be protected if the demonstrations took hold. It's ground-breaking legislation.
''When Tasmania does law reform, we do tend to be more progressive … Tasmania is definitely Australia's Petri dish with social law reform,'' she says.
Fahey is well aware of the criticisms of exclusion zones. Doesn't it mean we are clamping down on free speech? Once we ban demonstrations around clinics, how long will it be before we ban demonstrations to protect employment rights or forests. She argues there is a quite a difference: ''In having an access zone within the legislation we have a protection for staff and patients of clinics alike, which isn't currently there under existing laws. While clinic protests are generally less obviously destructive or noisy in comparison to say a forestry protest, they are incredibly harmful to the women and staff … casting shame and emotional guilt on women and the effects that are far more lasting than property damage.''
Susie Allanson could not agree more. Allanson, a clinical psychologist, has worked at the Fertility Control Clinic in Victoria for 22 years - and she called for exclusion zones after a security guard was murdered outside the clinic in 2001. Allanson, who has continued to be a proponent of the zones, said three years ago: ''The gunman who killed our security guard in 2001 stood with [protesters] on a couple of occasions and their rhetoric about us being murderers just gives rationale for them to take the next step.'' That horror, combined with the research she supervised on the mental states of women who've been harassed by demonstrators, has made her strong on this now.
''Women can be upset when they come for their abortions and are harassed . . . they can be either angry, teary or frightened so they require extra time and extra support.'' She says it is not the abortion itself - in nine out of ten instances, women are very clear in their minds. They've talked about it with their partners, family or friends. ''They've thought about their decision.'' It's not easy but why should protesters be determined to make it hard?
Tasmania may well be Australia's Petri dish for reform, but let's decriminalise abortion throughout Australia and follow its lead in keeping harassers and demonstrators away from women who have the right to choose.