There are two numbers that deeply worry me: the number 2,300, and the number 2,295.
These numbers represent the impacts of picketers outside 1 abortion clinic each year:
- 2,300: the number of clients who have encountered picketers outside the Marie Stopes Midland clinic in any given year.
- 2,295: the number of hours that picketers have spent outside of the clinic entrance, scrutinizing and judging clients and staff over 12 months.
For many years clinic staff and supporters have fought for protections against these picketers. It has not been easy as the rights of a group of strangers have taken precedence over the rights of health workers and patients.
Things, however, are changing. The McGowan Government in Western Australia has spent the past 12 months carefully consulting with the community on the implementation of safe access zones. These zones act as a 150-metre buffer around clinics that protect clients and staff from the impacts of picketers.
The zones are in place across most of Australia with the exception of WA and South Australia.
As the WA Government announces that they will commence drafting legislation for safe access zones to be introduced this year , we can expect to see a number of disinformation campaigns emerge.
These are the 4 most common, most dangerous myths pedalled about safe access zones by picketers outside abortion clinics.
Myth 1: Picketers outside clinics are not doing any harm.
Over the past three years staff and clients have been subjected to a range of behaviours from picketers. These include:
- Picketers stopping cars from entering the clinic car park
- Staff being spat at
- Staff being followed to their cars at the end of their shifts
- Clients being upset after picketers have questioned their decision to have an abortion.
The presence of a group of strangers outside a medical facility can be very upsetting and intimidating.
We often have feedback from patients and their support people about the impact of the picketers’ presence.
A support person most recently wrote this to us:
“I was approached by a protestor offering to give me a bag full of Anti abortion info, this was quite intimidating especially in the manner they approached me. I am here as a support person … I’m glad I was approached and not her as she is already struggling with the decision she has made.”
A client also gave us this feedback:
“Protesters out the front, disgusting way they speak to people. As a patient [it] was confronting and unnecessary. [They] should not be able to make females feel that way in a hard time.”
Whatever the behaviour of picketers outside a clinic, their presence is stressful. Stressful events prior to a surgical procedure can lead to poorer post surgery outcomes.
Further, employers of clinic staff have a duty of care to their employees. The continued presence of picketers means that employers are not fully able to take reasonable steps to provide a safe working environment.
Regardless of what a picketer might tell you, they cannot judge what causes harm to their target. That judgement can only be made by the client and the health workers who care for that client.
Myth 2: Safe access zones are an assault on free speech.
Where these zones are in place, they have never stopped people from speaking freely about the issue of abortion. The debate around the decriminalisation of abortion in New South Wales last year was in no way jeopardised by the presence of safe access zones in that State.
The zones are not about free speech, they are about the protection and safety of client and staff welfare and privacy. This was the unanimous verdict of all seven judges of the High Court of Australia when the constitutionality of Victoria’s safe access zones was tested last year.
Myth 3: The current laws are adequate to protect people accessing abortion clinics in Western Australia.
Currently, picketers are able to obtain a permit to gather outside of abortion clinics. While these permits have a number of conditions attached, it is up to healthcare providers to ‘police’ the behaviours of the picketers and provide evidence to police of breaches of the permit conditions. This is an incredible onus on a healthcare provider whose primary concern should be the care of the client. Between 2014 and 2019, WA Police have been called at least 75 times to two abortion providers, including Marie Stopes Midland. Police have limited powers to move picketers on and are reliant on clients to make a formal complaint in order to act. Understandably, most people do not want to pursue a formal complaint.
Myth 4: Picketers help people with decision making.
This myth can best be addressed by the words of Dr Harry Cohen AM who recently said in his submission in support of safe access zones in Western Australia:
“In my entire career as an obstetrician and gynaecologist, I have never seen a woman seek the opinions of a picketer outside an abortion clinic.”
Dr Cohen practised obstetrics and gynaecology in the public and private health sectors in Western Australia for more than 50 years. He has been the Director of Gynaecolgy at King Edward Memorial Hosptial for 10 years from 2000–2010 and was appointed to the 2006 Health Reform Committee of Western Australia.