Politics

NSW Women Will Finally Be Able To Have An Abortion Without Being Harassed On The Street

The Minister for Women and the Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence both voted against it.

After many long hours of debate, a bill to establish 150-metre safe access zones outside reproductive health clinics passed the NSW lower house late last night, finally putting an end to harassment and intimidation outside abortion clinics in the state.

The bill, co-sponsored by Labor’s Penny Sharpe and Nationals MLC Trevor Khan, passed the upper house last month, meaning it’s now set to become law. The new law introduces fines and even potentially jail time for anyone caught protesting, harassing or filming people within the safe zones, hopefully ensuring that people can now access reproductive health clinics without intimidation and abuse.

The bill’s success overnight comes just over a year after NSW Parliament voted down a similar bill introduced by Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi, which sought to establish safe zones and also decriminalise abortion in NSW. Yeah, that’s right, it’s 2018 and abortion is still illegal in Australia’s largest state.

Many MPs rose to speak on the bill yesterday, with debate lasting until around midnight. In a disappointing, if not surprising, turn of events, both the Minister for Women, Tanya Davies, and the Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, Pru Goward, opposed the bill.

While those opposed tried to raise the issue of free speech, however, the bill’s supporters repeatedly pointed out that no one is stopping anyone from expressing their views just a few steps away outside of the exclusion zone.

As Greens MP Tamara Smith put it, “this is actually about safe access. This is about the shaming of women, this is about the harassment of women, this is about the gaslighting of women.”

“It’s not trivial to think that we might be in a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale, when I’ve listened to some of the arguments against this bill,” she said. “This is about a safe access zone for women. It is not about gagging free speech, and it certainly is not about stymying the right to protest.”

“To think that in this day and age the patriarchal views are still so strong to raise the idea that women don’t know their own mind. That is a draconian, outdated, sexist view of women.”

Before today’s debate, a large group of protesters in favour of safe access zones, as well as a smaller group of protesters who opposed the bill, gathered outside state Parliament to make their views heard. Rosie, who was part of the Fair Agenda group in favour of the bill, told Junkee she was excited to see the bill pass.

“I’m here because I think women should be able to access reproductive healthcare without being harassed and intimidated by people. It’s a really simple thing we can do to stop that,” she said. “Next step: decriminalisation.”

Faruqi also emphasised the need to push for decriminalisation next, noting that while “today’s bill will mean that women and all people who need abortion services will be able to do so in privacy, in dignity, and without being harassed and intimidated,” there’s still more to do.

“We still have unfinished business in this Parliament,” she told Junkee. “We need to decriminalise abortion, which is the crux of the issue of lack of access for women and people who are seeking abortion services.”

“We need to remove that stigma and criminality.”

Opponents of the bill, meanwhile, stressed that they were not in support of harassing people seeking abortion, instead characterising protesters outside abortion clinics as “sidewalk counsellors”.

abortion safe zone protest

Protesters opposing the bill to create safe access zones outside abortion clinics.

“We’re basically protesting for the right to support women — to stand outside the abortion clinics and support these women in these difficult circumstances, and offer another link in the chain of support for them,” said Elisabeth, a spokesperson for the group.

“We’re not forcing anyone to listen to us, that’s really important. All we’re doing is standing there offering a smile, and if they choose to talk to us they’re welcome.” That may be true for the people present today, but it’s worth noting that many people seeking abortions in NSW have had a much more negative experience with protesters, who’ve been known to yell abuse, hand out plastic models of foetuses and distressing imagery, and otherwise harass people seeking abortion.

Elisabeth said that if the bill passed, she and its other opponents still planned to “do all we could to support women in this way, short of going against the law.” I guess we’ll see what that looks like soon.