It’s time to implement safe access zones

Sarah Lucy Media

Undergoing a medical procedure for most Australians is a relatively straight forward affair and one that can be done in privacy and without judgement from strangers.

Unless you are a woman seeking an abortion in NSW.

In early May, Dr Mehreen Faruqi’s Private Member’s Bill seeking to decriminalize abortion in NSW was defeated by the NSW Legislative Council. Had it been successful, the Bill, among other things, would have implemented 150 metre safe access zones around clinics that provide abortion services.

This is not a new concept; Victoria, the ACT and Tasmania have these zones and shortly so too will the Northern Territory.

The zones ensure that patients can enter a clinic without being harassed by protesters and recorded without their permission. They provide a bubble of safety around a clinic so that patients can have their privacy upheld and can access sexual and reproductive health services without being intimidated.

Fortunately there is a second chance to implement safe access zones with a Private Member’s bill due to be debated in the NSW legislative council. The Bill, introduced by Labor’s Penny Sharpe, is a second chance for women in NSW to have some form of protection when it comes to seeking sexual and reproductive health services.

For me, and many of my colleagues working in sexual and reproductive health clinics across the country, safe access zones are a personal issue.

I am used to being told on daily basis that I am going to hell. I am used to standing up to protestors who block my path when I am entering my workplace. I can handle the criticism that is spat at me angrily by strangers. I can do this because I strongly believe in providing sexual and reproductive health services to Australians no matter who they are or where they are located.

While I am based in NSW, I have the privilege of working in Marie Stopes clinics across the country. There is a marked difference between places that have safe access zones and those that don’t. Since the zones were implemented in Victoria in 2016, the experience of entering our Maroondah clinic has changed. Where once staff and patients were yelled at and had graphic images thrust at them that are designed to misinform and manipulate, they are now able to attend the clinic in peace.

Accessing a clinic peacefully and privately should be a basic right for all women no matter where they live in Australia.

Whenever safe access zones have been implemented, anti-choice activists assert that they will stifle freedom of speech and the right to protest. That is simple not true. There is no evidence to show that the implementation of these zones limits debate on the issue of abortion. If anything they provide greater opportunity for public debate.

The reality is that providing safe zones where patients can access sexual and reproductive health services, including abortions, is more a public health issue than a challenge to free speech.

Studies in the United States, most recently in 2013, have found a direct correlation between a patient’s negative emotional state and the presence of anti-choice activists at clinics. A qualitative study of women’s experiences accessing abortion clinics in the US between 2006 and 2009 also revealed that patients attending clinics with protestors found the experience negative and, in some cases traumatic.

The decision to have an abortion is not one that is taken lightly, but it is a legitimate medical decision for a woman, her doctor and any other person she wants to bring into that decision. To stand in her way, literally and metaphorically, is not only a danger to her wellbeing, it is also discriminatory.

In 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The convention defines discrimination against women as “…any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”

Australia signed this convention more than 30 years ago, yet still we are debating whether to protect a woman’s right to access a medical procedure without discrimination.

The politicians of NSW have the power to stop the harassment and vilification of women entering clinics. It is the decent thing to do and it is the right thing to do.

Dr Philip Goldstone is the Medical Director of Marie Stopes Australia

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 29 May 2017