When the High Court of Australia handed down its ruling last week on a test case designed to challenge the constitutionality of safe access zones in Victoria and Tasmania, providers of sexual and reproductive health services across the country breathed a sigh of relief.
The ruling was clear; safe access zones are about protecting the dignity, privacy and safety of patients accessing a facility that provides abortions.
Safe access zones are designated areas that surround clinics providing abortion. Within these zones, certain behaviours are prohibited in order to allow people to access health services free from hindrance. The zones also provide staff with a safe area where they can access their place of work without harassment and intimidation. Currently, the zones are in place in Victoria, NSW, Queensland, the ACT, Northern Territory and Tasmania.
They’re a recent development, with the first zones being implemented in Victoria in 2016. Where the zones have been put in place, the experience of patients accessing abortion care and staff accessing their workplace has changed markedly. The presence of these zones has made a difficult decision, or a challenging occupation, less stressful and more private.
While these zones are so important, it’s terribly sad that we actually need them. But we do need them; in order to protect people accessing sensitive, private medical services. And each week, people like the picketers who congregate outside our Midland clinic each week make these zones a necessity.
While many people, including the picketers themselves, would argue that they’re only engaged in a ‘prayer vigil’, what they fail to understand is just how intimidating it is to be confronted by a crowd of strangers when you’re accessing a medical appointment. All of them are there for one reason; to convince you to not make a decision about your own body.
What these picketers don’t, or won’t, understand is how deeply damaging it is to give someone a pamphlet that contains mistruths. Mistruths that tell women they’ll get breast cancer if they have an abortion. That they’ll likely be suicidal. That they won’t be able to have children in the future. That their relationship will end. That their lives will be ruined.
They don’t know how distressing it is for a partner or support person to see their loved one, already in a vulnerable position, be judged by a stranger and their set of beliefs. The people who choose to spend their time outside our clinics don’t understand that being told you’re a murderer, or that you’re going to hell, doesn’t really change anyone’s mind — it just makes what was already a difficult situation even more painful.
It’s difficult to convey these things to the picketers who congregate outside our Midland clinic each week. And this is why we need to resort to legislative interventions; because their behaviour outside clinics is offensive, it’s upsetting and it’s designed to hurt, manipulate and ultimately hinder someone’s access to healthcare.
Following on from the High Court judgement that concretely defends safe access zones, we applaud the Western Australian Government who has commenced the public consultation process that will lead to the establishment of the zones locally.
As a Western Australian woman, and as a member of the workforce that’s targeted by these picketers, the establishment of safe access zones is a personal issue. I know that I’m not alone. There are thousands of Western Australian women and their supporters who, for too long, have had to deal with these picketers as they access a clinic. The days of prioritising the personal beliefs of a few, over the health of many, are coming to an end.