In a victory for women’s rights, a demonstrator has been found guilty of breaching safe access zones in Victoria

International women's day march
 ‘The court’s decision is a victory for women’s rights, upholding the right to access health services free of intimidation or harassment and with due respect for women’s privacy, dignity and reproductive autonomy.’ Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A14-year-old girl, scared and vulnerable, realises that she is pregnant. A 43-year-old unemployed mother of five whose husband is recently deceased discovers she is pregnant and does not know how she will cope with another child. A 36-year-old woman with a planned pregnancy is processing a diagnosis of severe foetal abnormality.

Each year many Australian women deal with problem pregnancies. Some decide to continue with the pregnancy and some decide to terminate the pregnancy. Whatever the decision, they have a right to seek unbiased professional counselling and appropriate medical care; and they have a right to do so without being harassed, intimidated or interfered with as they are entering a clinic that provides the full range of reproductive health services. This is why Victoria’s safe access zone legislation, which prohibits certain conduct within 150m of a clinic at which abortions are provided, is so important.

In the Melbourne magistrates court this week, anti-abortion protester Kathleen Clubb became the first person to be convicted of breaching Victoria’s safe access zone legislation when she approached a couple entering a clinic and attempted to hand them anti-abortion pamphlets. The 51-year-old mother of 13 and active member of the anti-choice group known as Helpers of God’s Precious Infants was found guilty of “prohibited behaviour” within a safe access zone outside the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne and was fined $5,000. The court’s decision is a victory for women’s rights, upholding the right to access health services free of intimidation or harassment and with due respect for women’s privacy, dignity and reproductive autonomy.

A not-guilty verdict would have inevitably led to further testing of the parameters of the legislation, which would have seen patients and staff outside abortion clinics once again become the subjects of targeted harassment. We are all too aware of what that testing would entail, and the devastating effect it would have on patients and staff.

In recent months, we have been interviewing staff at Victorian clinics to gauge the effectiveness of the safe access zones. We have heard that before the zones were established, protesters would intrude into the personal space of patients and staff, block patients from exiting cars and bar entry to clinics or access along footpaths outside clinics.

They would display graphic imagery of dismembered foetuses, thrust brochures and foetal dolls into people’s hands and provide frightening misinformation about the consequences of abortion. Their unwelcome intrusions were described as a form gender-based vilification (comparable to racial vilification) and violence against women. The protesters created an atmosphere of stress and stigmatisation and made staff and patients feel unsafe. Their actions were particularly damaging for women with a history of sexual or physical violence or other vulnerabilities.

Anti-abortion protest action has created barriers to access, particularly in rural and regional areas. Some patients have delayed treatment or failed to attend follow-up appointments in order to avoid the protesters and some have continued with problem pregnancies because they have not been able to access the health care that they require. We have been told about doctors who stopped terminating pregnancies and health services that ceased operating because of the activities of anti-abortion protesters.

Safe access zones in Victoria have been operating to prevent protesters from targeting individuals. Protesters remain free to express their views about abortion, but at a distance from clinic patients and staff. Staff working in clinics have described safe access zones as an acknowledgement of women’s equality and autonomy and the need to address gender-based vilification and violence against women.

Victoria’s safe access zones legislation protects rights which have been undermined by anti-abortion protesters with impunity for decades. It is clear that Clubb and the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants oppose the legislation and its operation. For others contemplating anti-abortion protest within a safe access zone, Magistrate Luisa Bazzani’s decision has sent an important message of deterrence. It is to be hoped that the four Australian states who have yet to introduce such protective measures will act to prioritise women’s right to health, privacy and dignity and will introduce safe access zones in the near future.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/13/anti-abortion-protestors-have-acted-with-impunity-for-decades-that-ends-now?utm_content=bufferbbc3c&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer