I have dedicated much of my medical career to ensuring women have access to high quality, compassionate sexual and reproductive healthcare. However, there are two things that have always frustrated me about my work. The first is that some states, like NSW, still consider abortion a crime. The second is that women accessing abortion services are often subjected to harassment, intimidation, and public abuse and judgement when they are trying to access these services.
While we still have a long way to go to fix the first issue, the second has just been resolved thanks to new legislation enacted by the NSW Parliament. This week the Public Health Amendment (Safe Access to Reproductive Health Clinics) Bill 2018 received Royal accent and is now law in NSW.
For 13 years I have work at the Marie Stopes clinic in Westmead. Almost every week I have seen the disruption and pain that picketers cause outside clinics. I have seen the deliberate baiting and abuse of women and their partners as they make their way in to the clinic. I have seen the hurt and anger they cause to patients and witnessed the feelings of lost privacy and dignity of patients who have been harassed.
I have seen so many women put up with the breathtakingly arrogant and deliberately upsetting behaviours of complete strangers. I know that we cannot take back those terrible experiences that many women have endured accessing abortion clinics over the years. However, this week as a community, we have finally acknowledged that women deserve the same dignity, respect and privacy that we all take for granted when accessing healthcare services.
Those who opposed the Safe Access Zones Bill have claimed that it will stifle free-speech, or herald some type of Orwellian future. It will do neither of these things. The same people who stood outside clinics last week will still be able to talk about their views, lobby politicians, and to pray. They just won’t be able to do these things at the expense of someone’s dignity and health.
It is sad that we need these zones but they are a key step in protecting the health of patients. They are also a necessary part of our community’s response to ensuring women are safe. After all, we live in a country where, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than a third of all women have experienced violence, and where more than a tenth of women have experienced stalking. These zones are a small part in creating safe spaces for women.
The cross party support shown by many in the NSW Parliament is heartening, especially the outstanding collaboration between the ALP’s Penny Sharpe and the National’s Trevor Khan.
I hope that this cross party support will soon extend to repeal outdated laws that still class abortion as a crime in NSW. That would truly show women that we not only respect their right to privacy and safety, we also trust them to make choices about their own reproductive destinies.
Dr Philip Goldstone is the Medical Director of Marie Stopes Australia