Under a recently passed bill to amend the Public Health Act in New South Wales, Australia, protesters who harass, film, or make abortion related communications within 150 meters of abortion clinics will face fines of up to $5,500 or six months of imprisonment. Passed on the 8th of June with 61 to 18 in favour, the bill takes a positive step in protecting the safety, privacy, and dignity of persons accessing abortion clinics. However, it has borne sharp criticism from pro-life and pro-free speech advocates alike, deemed a curtailment on the freedom of speech.
Labor MP Penny Sharpe has said “this bill does not seek to prevent people from holding or expressing their views [but rather to] protect the right of a person to attend a reproductive health clinic without fear of intimidation or harassment… their privacy being invaded or dignity attacked.” Sharpe has identified these protests as including displays of fake blood splattered dolls, distribution of plastic fetuses, and shaming through publicly distributed filming. Protests have been so severe outside clinics in Albury that security guards were employed. The legislation appears to be supported within NSW, a poll conducted by Lonergan Research found 81% of 1,015 participants were in favour of exclusion zones, with 93% of rural or regional participants expressing strong approval. Within the broader Australian community, NSW joins Victoria, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory in enacting “safe access zones” legislation.
Nonetheless, exclusion zones have attracted marked opposition. Minister for Women Tanya Davies objects to the legislation along pro-life grounds, arguing it “denies support and informed choice to vulnerable women.” This support is provided by so-called sidewalk counsellors like Helper of God’s Precious Infants member Anna von Marburg who states they treat “every mother with dignity and respect.” At its crux, controversy regarding “safe access zones” legislation isn’t restricted to abortion debates. It appeals more broadly to freedom of speech rights that compete with the personal rights of women to access health facilities without harassment or shaming. Minister for Family and Community Services Pru Goward argues that the ambiguous drafting of the legislation makes it a “very powerful weapon of censorship.” This issue has driven re-drafts of previous “safe access zone” bills in 2016 and 2017 to expressly limit exclusion zones to abortion clinics and to exclude contentious locations like churches, outside Parliament, or during political events.
Ultimately, this bill does not seek to silence those opposing abortion, but rather to create safe spaces for women who choose to access these services. As Adrianne Walters, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, has said, “free speech is not a license to harm others with impunity.” In a state where abortion remains criminalized under the Crimes Act 1900 NSW, this bill should be celebrated as a step forward towards a future where women can freely exercise their right to bodily autonomy without fear of intimidation, harassment, or criminalization. However, whether this future will involve more significant encroachments on freedom of speech or will merely “create a new context for civil protest,” as Liberal MP Alister Henskens cautions, remains to be seen. The High Court is set to determine whether the Victorian equivalent to “safe access zones” legislation infringes the implied, constitutionally protected freedom of political communication. For now, however, the women of NSW can enjoy the safety and dignity afforded to them by this remarkable victory in an ongoing battle to secure their freedom of choice in reproductive healthcare.