While Victoria and Tasmania’s exclusion zone laws require anti-abortion protesters to keep their distance from medical clinics, in NSW opponents invoke free speech arguments to assert their right to confront patients. By Ben Rice.

NSW debates exclusion zone laws for abortion protestors

Pro-choice supporters face anti-abortion protesters outside the clinic in Surry Hills.
Pro-choice supporters face anti-abortion protesters outside the clinic in Surry Hills.
Credit: Emma Funnell

Outside a nondescript building on a nondescript street in Sydney’s Surry Hills, two small groups of protesters congregate. Some of them have been coming to this street for 20 years or more; some more recently. Though they share the same space, the two groups are alike only in their passion for the issue that divides them: a woman’s right to a safe abortion. In New South Wales, the way this issue is debated may be about to change, with proposed laws prohibiting protesters from coming within 150 metres of an abortion clinic.

Paul Hanrahan has been coming to this clinic for 22 years. He is the executive director of Family Life International, an anti-abortion non-profit that organises vigils outside abortion clinics across the country, whose participants are known as the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants.

Up to three times a week, the Helpers line the thoroughfare on Devonshire Street, holding graphic displays of unborn foetuses and signs with biblical verses. They pray, sing songs and hand out pamphlets. “Abortion hurts women,” reads one sign. An image of a 10-week-old foetus bears the caption: “My brain waves can be recorded.” The Helpers are committed to “maintaining a loving and prayerful presence outside abortion mills, where God’s children are put to death”.

Hanrahan tells me Family Life International is there to support women, spiritually and financially, who decide not to terminate their pregnancy. “I have a $10,000 hospital bill sitting on my desk,” he says, showing me pictures on his phone of a mother smiling proudly with her newborn child. He estimates he has prevented more than 400 women from ending their pregnancies at clinics around the country. “I’ve held lots of babies in my arms that were going to die in this place. I haven’t had one mother not be thankful for that.”

Hanrahan is opposed to exclusion zone laws. “What if they made laws that prohibited people who want to protest about detention centres?” Trying to discourage women from entering the clinic is Hanrahan’s divine calling, and, he believes, his right. “This is just a matter of free speech … Whether it’s constitutional is the question.”

On the other side of the debate is Bethany Sheehan, who believes that a woman’s right to a safe abortion extends beyond the doors of the clinic and into the streets. Her group, My Body, My Right, has been creating what she describes as a “buffer zone” for women to pass through to reach the clinic, safe from the graphic imagery and pamphlets of the Helpers. The group stands silently along the footpath. They hold hands to form a chain and carry flowers. Passers-by yell their support to Sheehan’s group and toot horns. Sheehan says public reaction to the counter-protest has been “overwhelmingly positive”.

Sheehan believes her presence provides both protest and protection. According to her, the group exists only to draw attention to the harassment they see women face when entering the clinic. By creating a human buffer zone, the members of My Body, My Right hope to promote the introduction of legally enforced exclusion zones, which have recently come into effect in Tasmania and Victoria.

Unsurprisingly, exclusion zone laws have not been without controversy. Last year, three protesters were arrested for violating the 150-metre zone of an abortion clinic in Tasmania. The trio pleaded not guilty to charges of engaging in prohibited behaviour in an access zone on constitutional grounds, arguing that exclusion zone laws infringed their right to freedom of political expression, and religious freedom.

While the magistrate in this case has reserved her decision, Paul Hanrahan alludes to an appeal – ultimately to the High Court if necessary – if the trio is found guilty. “I know things are happening,” he tells me, but concedes that the cost of mounting a court challenge will be problematic.

Someone who doesn’t buy into the infringement of free speech argument is Victorian Sex Party MLC Fiona Patten. Last year, exclusion zone legislation proposed by Patten, and supported by the Labor government, was passed in Victoria. The legislation was drafted in response to the actions of the Helpers who had been accused of intimidating, and even following home, women who visited a clinic.

Patten is hopeful that the NSW parliament may soon catch up with public opinion. Abortion laws in NSW, she says, are “so obsolete” and “out of touch with where the community is”. On whether she is worried that the exclusion zone legislation could be challenged in the High Court on free speech grounds, Patten says, “We are very comfortable that it does not infringe on someone’s freedom of political speech.”

Patten believes exclusion zone laws still allow protesters’ voices to be heard, while protecting the medical privacy of women using an abortion clinic. She urges those opposed to the laws to write to her office, or protest on the steps of Parliament House, away from the patients of abortion clinics, who she believes feel intimidated and harassed.

Hanrahan denies his “peaceful vigils” are designed to intimidate patients of the clinic, and claims that allegations of harassment by the Helpers in Melbourne newspapers, prompting the introduction of exclusion zone laws, were false. “The things that were claimed were not true,” he tells me.

But the practice manager of The Private Clinic, the family planning centre in Surry Hills, Paul Nattrass, rejects this. “The way I see it, they design it to be quite intimidating from a distance,” he says. The presence of the Helpers outside his clinic can be “quite distressing for patients who have made up their mind well before coming to the clinic”, even if no one is physically harassed.

According to Nattrass, a man was recently arrested outside the clinic after he assaulted the partner of a patient. Nattrass says two men had been involved in an argument, which ignited after protesters attempted to persuade the man’s partner not to go through with her abortion.

Hanrahan admits that the altercation occurred, telling me, “We don’t like it when that happens.” Surry Hills police were unable to confirm the arrest.

The Private Clinic’s staff have been hoping for the introduction of buffer zone laws for “many years”, according to Nattrass. “It doesn’t deny anyone who wants to protest the opportunity to protest, but we think it’s inappropriate to be harassing patients who are attending a clinic for medical care.”

Leading the charge for exclusion zone laws in NSW is Greens MLC and status of women spokeswoman Dr Mehreen Faruqi. In 2014, Faruqi gave notice of her intent to introduce a bill that would remove abortion from the Crimes Act, and establish exclusion zones around abortion clinics.

“We are continuing to campaign and engage with people to reach a point – hopefully this year – where we will be able to debate and pass the bill,” she says. “In every other health matter we protect the privacy of people – that’s what this law is about.”

But Faruqi has experienced similar opposition in the NSW parliament to that faced by Fiona Patten, who says that “major parties never want to talk about abortion”.

“We often see that politicians are way behind public opinion,” says Faruqi. “But NSW parliament is very conservative at the moment, it has been for a while, and of course that’s one of the reasons that this change hasn’t happened.”

While politicians may be reluctant to talk about abortion, the public has overwhelmingly made up its mind. A poll commissioned by the NSW Greens found that 87 per cent of NSW residents supported a woman’s right to abortion. The results of this poll show that support for abortion law reform stretches “across parties, across age groups, and in both urban and regional areas,” says Faruqi.

But Paul Hanrahan isn’t convinced. “There are a lot of people within our community who don’t like abortion,” he says. “But whether they like it or not, their tax dollars are supporting it.”

Until buffer zone legislation is passed in NSW, the campaigners from My Body, My Right will stand in silent opposition to the Helpers who line Devonshire Street every week. “Standing here today like this is also a sign of showing support and solidarity to the people going in and out of the clinic,” Faruqi says, adding that, “Until we have legislated exclusion zones in NSW, actions such as counter-protesting in this way will continue to happen.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2016 as "Protesting from the sidelines".

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Ben Rice is a Sydney-based writer.

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