Female nurse wearing a mask looking out the window.

Jackie has worked in clinics with and without Safe Access Zones — the differences are startling.

The history of people picketing outside of abortion clinics is well known, almost anachronistic, however, this does not diminish the stress that it causes not only the clients but also the staff who are dedicated to providing an emotionally and physically safe space. People accessing or leaving premises providing abortions should be able to do so freely, and in a manner that protects their safety and wellbeing, and respects their privacy and dignity.

Jackie is a Nurse Unit Manager and has worked in abortion clinics across Australia for around 18 years. She has worked at sexual and reproductive healthcare clinics in Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland, having experienced healthcare provision both with and without Safe Access Zones. Safe Access Zones prevent picketing within 150 metres of abortion care clinics. They safeguard clients and healthcare workers against harassment, intimidation and judgement.

Jackie has seen the direct impacts of anti-choice picketing and associated activities and the difference a legally enforced safety zone can make to both staff and clients. Western Australia is the only state that has a gap in existing laws that means currently, staff and clients at our Midland clinic are not necessarily able to access healthcare in a safe and confidential manner, and free from the threat of harassment or intimidation.

The picketing activity is not limited to placard holding. Jackie describes other activities across Australia which include coercion by religious groups forcefully offering to house a woman and baby for the duration of the child’s life. Some groups claim to be praying and do rosary chants in 24 hour vigils. There are also regular incidents of brochures being handed to clients with inaccurate and misleading information about gestational status and size of the fetus which shows the fetus’ to be much further along in development. At times there have been picketers with cameras filming and taking photos of people entering and leaving the clinics. These individuals or groups are seeking to shame, stigmatise, humiliate or cause distress to clients, by publishing images of them accessing premises providing abortions.

Some clients who witness picketing will leave and decide not to enter the clinic and not attend the appointment, and there is concern that these women and pregnant people may choose other less safe alternatives. It should also be noted that not all people entering and leaving the clinic are seeking an abortion. The clinic offers a variety of healthcare services including contraceptive care and STI treatment.

During busy picketing periods, including times where the council has issued peaceful protest permissions, the staff will monitor the CCTV cameras around the clinic and often have to leave the clinic to go out onto the street to offer protection to clients and ensure safe and shielded entry. This means that there is less staff in the clinic doing the work they were employed to do. Another drain on resources occurs when the police need to be called if there is an altercation or a particularly aggressive picketer. Police will drive by the clinics to keep an eye on the activity.

This year the Western Australian Government will consider the Health Amendment (Safe Access Zones) Bill 2020, which would enable Safe Access Zones around abortion clinics throughout Western Australia. All people accessing and working in abortion services have the right to a safe and private environment and legislation should support this.

Jacqueline Bunt is Senior Nurse Manager at Marie Stopes Australia. She works nationally across Marie Stopes Australia clinics, some of which have the privilege of safe access zones whilst others have picketers who intimidate and harass patients and staff.

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MSI Australia

MSI Australia is the leading, accredited, national provider for abortion, contraception and vasectomy.