Imagine going to work and being told by random strangers that you are going to hell. You have to push past people who tell you what you do is wrong, that you should be ashamed and that you’re doing the devil’s work. Your vehicle is regularly splashed by ‘holy water’ that mysteriously blisters the paint on your car, and you have graphic images shoved in your face as you enter your workplace.
This is the reality for many Australian healthcare workers each day who provide abortion care to thousands of patients.
Many clinics across Australia live with the presence of anti-abortion picketers who harass and intimidate staff tasked with providing a safe, high quality and legal health service to women.
When picketers target a clinic, their presence impacts all staff; from the cleaner to the receptionist, the counsellors and nurses through to the doctors. It also impacts on their families who worry about them when they are confronted with aggressive picketers.
As CEO of Marie Stopes Australia, an organisation that runs 14 such clinics across Australia, I see the toll that picketers take on staff. It makes an already difficult and demanding job, that much more stressful. We do everything we can to support our staff, but we need better support when it comes to protecting them from clinic picketers.
Not all of our clinics are targeted by protesters. In Victoria, the ACT and Northern Territory, governments have introduced laws that provide an area of safe access around clinics. The designated zones allow staff and patients to access the clinics free from the interference and intimidation of picketers.
Where the laws are in place, staff no longer have to deal with a stressful entrance to their workplace. In our Marie Stopes Canberra clinic, where once staff accompanied each other to their cars for safety reasons, they feel safer leaving the clinic by themselves at the end of the day. At our Marie Stopes Maroondah clinic, an area that was of particular focus for picketers prior to the safe access zones, staff no longer have to run the gauntlet of abusive strangers each morning simply to make it to work on time.
At a time when there is, understandably, a zero tolerance approach to the abuse and assault of healthcare workers in hospitals and the ambulance service, the protection of healthcare workers who provide abortion care should also be given priority.
Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia do not have safe access zones in place. As a result clinic staff in these states are not afforded the same occupational health and safety protections that other state and territory workers are provided.
I have worked in the Australian health care system in both public and private hospitals for more than 30 years. Occupational health and safety has always been a high priority for hospital management and state and territory health departments. I’ve never worked in a health service where staff are required to deal with abuse and intimidation from strangers as they enter their workplace.
The 2001 death of Stephen Rogers, a security guard at the East Melbourne Fertility Clinic who was killed by an anti-abortion activist, was a reminder to all who work in our industry that we can’t be complacent about worker safety. Mr Rogers death was one too many. It is time to do the right thing by all abortion care workers in this country and to implement safe access zones in New South Wales Queensland and Western Australia.
Michelle Thompson is CEO of Marie Stopes Australia, a national not-for-profit provider of abortion and contraception.