Culture

This Is What It’s Like To Be Abused Outside An Abortion Clinic. Should Protestors Be Kept Away?

"They were saying I didn't know what I was doing and calling me a murderer. They were getting right up in my face. I was only 15 years old, all of these pro-lifers were adults. All of them."

[Update: May 11, 2017]: Since this piece was written both Victoria and the ACT have successfully passed laws to prohibit protesters from congregating outside abortion clinics. Yay!

In less great news: NSW parliament today voted against a bill which proposed both safe exclusion zones as well as the decriminalisation of abortion. The bill was voted down 25-14; abortion remains in the criminal code. A similar push towards decriminalisation in Queensland was dropped earlier this year too.

Here’s a reminder of what effect that will have in people’s lives:

Having an abortion isn’t really anyone’s idea of a good time. First you have the nausea and dread that comes with being pregnant, then the added nausea and dread of being pregnant when you don’t want to be. Then, if you live in certain places in Australia, there’s a good chance you’ll have to mount a case for yourself. You have to justify your desire to feel normal again to a cynical doctor, and talk about — or perhaps even feign — some serious mental distress.

Then, if all your diligent work pays off, you might have the pleasure of slipping through a crowd of strange old men spitting insults at you, as you head to an already unpleasant medical procedure.

Thankfully, this situation may soon be getting slightly better. After Sex Party MP Fiona Patten introduced a private member’s bill on the issue last week, Victoria looks set to enforce an exclusion zone for protestors around its abortion clinics. Convinced of the negative effects protestors have on those seeking terminations, Labor have stepped up and offered to put forward their own bill to the Lower House.

Pending the (likely) support of other crossbenchers, it will become state law sometime later this year.

Remarkably, though the issue was debated in state Parliament yesterday afternoon, there’s been next to no major pushback against the move. In fact, with just small protest groups and one Democratic Labor MP vocally going up against it, the bill’s been pre-emptively celebrated as a victory by many of the state’s most prominent figures.

Because of all this, the exclusion zone feels quite simple: an easy bureaucratic fix to a problem that’s been arbitrarily overlooked for some time. But in reality, the situation is far more complicated. This is at once an enormous breakthrough and the beginning of a much larger battle — one which needs to be separately fought by each of the nation’s state governments.

Everything Is Bad All Over

While abortion clinics around Australia do what they can to keep protestors away, they have little power to enforce any rules, and regularly require government bodies to step in. However, as of this moment, Tasmania is the only one of our states or territories with legislation that ensures safe access zones around abortion clinics.

Enforcing a protest-free area of 150 metres — the same distance proposed by Patten — their Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Act stops people from harassing, intimidating, obstructing or filming those accessing the medical facilities. It’s the same law that decriminalised abortion itself, and was in fact only passed in 2013.

Importantly, there has been talk of extending this to other regions. ACT Greens MP Shane Rattenbury has been campaigning for similar legislation in Canberra this year after a great deal of pressure from the local community, and NSW Greens MP and spokesperson for the Status of Women Mehreen Faruqi has also championed the cause. But Faruqi in particular faces a more difficult challenge: NSW is one of the remaining states where abortion is still in the criminal code, rather than more general health legislation. In theory, there’s the potential of up to ten years jail time if you don’t abide by the rules.

To obtain a legal termination in NSW you must prove to a doctor that the pregnancy would put your physical and/or mental health in serious danger, or that there are important social or economic factors to be taken into consideration. How much of a burden this is can very much depend on what kind of doctor you get. But it’s at least slightly better than the situation in Queensland and the Northern Territory, where your eligibility for a legal abortion is solely dependent on your “health”.

With their options limited, it’s common for NT women to travel to other states to access better healthcare. No one in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and ACT will make you justify yourself, though they do each have cut-off dates.

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Australian abortion law. Not confusing at all.

These are the hurdles women who choose to have an abortion must first jump, only to be met with protestors outside the clinic.

Adding Insult To Injury

Claiming their constitutional right to “freedom of political communication”, small groups often congregate on the footpaths outside medical facilities that offer legal abortions, and approach people on their way in.

Their actions can differ wildly. A couple of years ago I interviewed some elderly men from one of the most infamous groups outside the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne. They held rosary beads, handed out pamphlets and compared themselves to “store detectives”. Twelve years prior, a man marched up to that same clinic with 16 litres of kerosene, torches, gags and guns and murdered a security guard before being disarmed.

Writer Clementine Ford has publicly advocated for the pro-choice cause for a number of years now, and offered to talk about her own experiences when we opened a discussion on this topic. “I’ve had two abortions, both in South Australia,” she said. “They were free, legal and safe — which is exactly what terminations should be.”

Though there were a small number of protestors who were well away from the clinic entrance before her second termination, she doesn’t recall them interfering in any negative way — an experience that is not universal to those in her situation.

“Terminations are not always the terribly difficult decision that people like to pretend, but that doesn’t mean they’re a fun time,” she said. “The only people equipped to know what’s best for their pregnancies are the people who have them. Shaming them for making a choice that has been clearly thought through and is informed by a huge range of possibilities is mean-spirited and hateful.

“Women should be supported to control their bodies, not judged for it. Protestors do nothing to help people undertaking this decision, and they certainly don’t seem to do anything to help single mothers.”

Speaking specifically about the idea of safe access zones, Ford suggests other governments should follow suit behind Tasmania and Victoria.

“I believe clinics already want protestors to be kept away but are often stymied by legislation. Governments should step in and make exclusion zones mandatory on all clinics, not to mention state governments’ responsibility to fully legalise abortion throughout Australia.”

As Victoria celebrates its new moves towards legislation, here’s a snapshot of what’s happening across the border in NSW:

“They Crowded Around Me And I Was So Grateful To Be Under The Fog Of Anaesthesia” – A Patient

“I had a termination six or seven years ago. I went to the clinic in Surry Hills. I was feeling determined and sure I was doing the right thing, but also just kind of emotionally shit about the decision.

“I rolled up and out the front to a group of crazy-eyed people with placards of pictures of aborted foetuses. It reminded me of the awful GP I’d seen to get the referral who had tried to talk me out of it by showing me basically the same images. I was also terrified that being in Surry Hills, I would see someone who I knew and that the people with the revolting placards would give away what I was doing there.

“Sure enough, they jeered at me and I yelled at them to fuck off. On my way out, after it’d been done, I remember them crowding me as I left and I was so grateful to be under the fog of anaesthesia, that all I can really recall is waking up several hours later, sore and still tired, wanting to go back and punch every last one of them in their stupid faces.

“I was so angry that they could show images like that in public, in that particular place. They also had these wild conspiracy theories that they were selling the foetus and doing all kinds of shady things in the clinic. I just thought about how other women who were struggling with their decision would be really impacted by this; by these protestors who could not give a shit about someone’s quality of life if they guilt them into keeping the baby.”

“I Burst Into Tears In The Middle Of The Street” – A Patient

“There’s a clinic on the Elizabeth end of Devonshire Street [Surry Hills] where I had an abortion three years ago. Nobody harassed me on the day I had it, but a week later I took Devonshire to get up to Surry Hills from Central and was obviously distinctly aware that the street now had a lot of emotional connotations. Still experiencing the after-effects of the procedure, I was trying to control the turmoil by walking by and making it all regular and normal again.

“When I approached the door of the clinic, there was one woman standing outside wearing a pasteboard with a photograph of a bloody and very developed foetus — it was about six months, not the actual stage at which you’d have an abortion. She was yelling, ‘Stop the murder of innocent children!’, or something along those lines, and marching back and forth outside the door.

“I froze in the street. I wanted to say something to her or tell her to stop but I was completely overwhelmed. I wish I had yelled at her and ripped off her fucking board and gotten her away from the door. But I didn’t do anything. I burst into tears in the middle of the street and stopped walking down that street.

“It’s such a personal thing it feels difficult having anybody know. This is why people rarely confront the protestors when they see them, even if they’re violently upset by them as they walk by.”

“They Ensure Women Aren’t Allowed To Make Their Own Medical Decisions” – A Clinic Defender

“I did something called 40 Days For Annoying Anti-Choicers. During Lent, there’s a group of people who I understand are affiliated with a specific Catholic church who follow a US-style campaign to target women accessing women’s health clinics.

“This group picketed the clinic in Surry Hills on the days they performed terminations, in the mornings during patient admission. Our counter-protests took their attention off the women accessing the clinic as they got quite cranky at us instead.

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Comments posted in the clinic defenders’ public Facebook event.

“I had a long chat at the beginning of the 40 days with the clinic staff, and their take was that each woman has an individual reaction to the protestors — some are bothered by it, some are fine, some tell them off, and some are really upset, but there’s no way of knowing before they see it. The clinic staff took the position (part of their general philosophy) to trust women and follow their need. If anyone needed assistance they could ask ahead of time or on the day and the staff were there to help.

“For me, it’s not just the individual behaviour of the anti-choicers that is a problem — though it is problematic that they approach people on the street — it’s the breathtaking arrogance to assume that they know what’s best for people, and that they have the right to interfere. They don’t seem to have any awareness that women have the right to make their own decisions unfettered, and they frequently do everything they can to ensure women aren’t allowed to make their own medical decisions.

“None of them know the circumstances of the clinic’s patients — if the woman can support a child or if the pregnancy is life-threatening — none of it. Their focus is on trying to coerce women into living their lives in a way the protestors endorse.”

“I Felt So Helpless” – A Former Clinic Employee

“Inside the clinic we had security cameras recording the front entrance that gave us a clear view of the protestors and the patients walking in. It was horrible to sit there and watch the girls walk past the protestors and I felt so helpless.

“They would stand at either ends of the street waiting to launch on someone who started walking towards the clinic, shoving pamphlets with incorrect information and macabre pictures and handing out rosary beads. The girls are followed right up until they walk through the door and it was not uncommon for them to burst into tears as soon as they walked into the waiting room.

“More than anything it made me angry having to walk past the protestors every day. Not because it was an inconvenience to me but my heart just broke for the poor girls. On several occasions patients with an appointment that day would call the office because they were across the road from the clinic but didn’t feel like they could walk past the protestors, particularly if they were alone and didn’t have a support person.

“I would walk across the road and meet them, give them a hug and let them have a cry. If they wanted me to, I would walk with them into the clinic, shielding them from the protestors the best I could.”

“They Were Aggressively Verbally Attacking A Visibly Nervous Child”  – A Patient

I was harassed by pro-lifers outside a clinic in Western Sydney when I was 15. I was already incredibly anxious about going there. Even at such a young age I knew there was a societal stigma attached to terminating pregnancies, but I knew I did not want to have a baby. I didn’t want one, and I certainly wasn’t in any sort of position to raise a child since I still was one myself.

“It was a clinic in Homebush, but I don’t remember the name. From the outside it just looked like a regular old brick house. There was a group of people milling around the front gate, and as I approached they all began angrily asking me whether I was going inside. They were saying I didn’t know what I was doing and calling me a murderer. They were getting right up in my face, very close. I tried my best to ignore them and went inside.

“After the procedure I felt incredibly relieved that it was over, and after a few hours I was allowed to go home. As I exited the clinic another anti-abortion protestor ran up to me and said, ‘I hope you know what you’ve done!’. They shoved a pamphlet into my hand which was full of colour photos of what they claimed to be aborted foetuses. If they were, they were very late term; totally out of step with what a foetus would look like in the vast majority of terminations.

“I should clarify too, that while I was only 15 years old, all of these pro-lifers were adults. All of them. Thinking back on it now, I’m really disgusted that a group of adults would aggressively verbally attack a visibly nervous child.”

Feature image via Getty.

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