Shane Rattenbury prepares to ban anti-abortion protests outside Canberra's abortion clinic
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Shane Rattenbury prepares to ban anti-abortion protests outside Canberra's abortion clinic

The Greens' Shane Rattenbury is moving to outlaw protests near Canberra's abortion clinic, releasing draft legislation today aimed at putting an end to the regular vigils held outside the Moore Street building.

Mr Rattenbury aims to outlaw the vigils and prevent anti-abortion protesters handing out material to women coming and going from the clinic.

Catholic Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn Christopher Prowse, centre, attends a prayer vigil outside the Moore Street abortion clinic in March.

Catholic Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn Christopher Prowse, centre, attends a prayer vigil outside the Moore Street abortion clinic in March.

Photo: Graham Tidy

The legislation doesn't set a specific distance around the clinic for the exclusion zone, leaving it to the health minister to decare an area "sufficient to ensure the privacy and unimpeded access for anyone entering", but no bigger than necessary.

Mr Rattenbury said while the abortion clinic remained in Moore Street, the exclusion zone would be based on the footprint of the building, including the footpaths and roads outside and on the opposite side of the street.

Territory and Municipal Services Minister Shane Rattenbury.

Territory and Municipal Services Minister Shane Rattenbury.

Photo: Rohan Thomson
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The legislation would ban events such as the one held before Easter this year, when ​Canberra Goulburn Catholic Archbishop Christopher Prowse led prayers outside the clinic.

Penalties are hefty, with fines of up to $3750 for protests or other kind of intimidation in the exclusion zone, and up to $7500 or six months in prison for publishing video or photographs of people entering or leaving a clinic.

Mr Rattenbury is releasing his draft legislation for comment today, and hopes to have it debated in the Assembly by the end of the year.

He insisted it was not about denying people's right to protest, with people still able to make their point outside the ACT Assembly, Parliament House or elsewhere.

"This is about a woman being able to go down there and have this medical procedure without being harassed or intimidated," he said.

"What we're trying to achieve is that women should not ​have to run the gauntlet when they are seeking to access these legal medical services."

He had limited the scope as much as possible, with the "privacy zone" applying only to a small area and to the hours of 8am till 6pm on days the clinic was open. The ban on protest only applied to abortion and related health services.

"We've really sought to be at least restrictive as possible," Mr Rattenbury said.

The legislation outlaws "harassment, hindering, intimidation, interference with, threatening or obstruction" designed to stop someone entering a clinic or having an abortion, or providing an abortion. It bans protests, and while it doesn't define "protest", Mr Rattenbury said silent vigils would not be allowed.

Mr Rattenbury said while protest activity in Canberra was mainly vigils and handing out anti-abortion literature, the extra pressure on women at a vulnerable time was not warranted.

But he was "very mindful of not impinging on people's civil liberties" and keen to hear back on the proposal.

Tasmania, which has similar legislation, imposes an exclusion zone of 150 metres.

​Women's Centre for Health Matters executive director Marcia Williams said protests were held at least once a week, and women had sometimes tried to reschedule appointments to avoid protest. Women entering the building for other appointments were also made to feel uncomfortable, along with staff, who felt they were "walking through a wall of people who were making judgements".

"Anecdotally, we often get emails, we often have conversations with people that work in that building, and ... what we hear is they do feel considerable distress in response to having those people there. Women feel ashamed and judged when they're already feeling anxious."

While the vigils were usually silent, women had the right to use a normal and legal health service without feeling judged.

"[Protesters] are allowed to express themselves, but they've also got to respect that it can intimidate and harass people," Ms Williams said. "It's a fine balance, that rights issue ... Does a man going into a vasectomy clinic have to deal with protest? This is a legal health service and about the right to privacy."

She supported not specifying the exclusion in metres, saying it should be determined by the building set up.