The Passing of Safe Access Zones in NSW

You’ve probably heard the news about safe access zones and you’re probably as thrilled as I am with the result. This will be brief, but I’ve been waiting a long time to have good news in regards to reproductive health for women so allow me to indulge.

Public Health Amendment (Safe Access to Reproductive Health Clinics) Bill 2018 passed. It passed. We did it. We took another step towards equality, towards respecting women, to improving safe medical care for women and a step away from patriarchal control.

Credit: Twitter @PennySharpemlc

So thank you to the ministers who listened to the women and people who needed this bill. And thank you to everyone who campaigned for this, or for the as yet unpassed End12/ decriminalisation of abortion over the past few years.

What does this bill actually mean?

This bill will establish 150m “safe access zones” around abortion clinics. Within the 150m it will be illegal to intimidate, harass or film people accessing the clinic. The bill also creates a communication offence if someone makes "a communication that relates to abortion, by any means that could cause distress or anxiety" to a person accessing the clinic.

Who voted?

More than 40 MPs spoke on this bill and it took hours of debate. It passed with no amendments, 61/18.

Of the holdouts, Tanya Davies and Pru Goward didn’t support the bill. While I obviously agree women can share differing opinions on laws, Tanya Davies is our Minister for Women and Pru Goward is the NSW Minister for Family and Community Services, for Social Housing, and for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
This bill is primarily about safety and respect for women. These ministers, Tanya Davies especially, are meant to improve the lives of NSW women.
Harassment when seeking medical treatment doesn’t improve our lives.

Pru Goward, here, explains her reasoning for voting against. In the article, Goward explains the bill poses a problem for her in regards to freedom of speech.

I want to counter the idea that the bill attacks free speech, as it’s prevalent, and I want to be as clear as possible: no one is forcing "sidewalk counsellors" to stop doing what they are doing. If they want to hand out incorrect information () and pamphlets about abortions, they still can, they just have to do it 150 metres down the street from a clinic. What they can’t do is target harassment to people entering the clinics. This buffer removes the distress and intimidation for the women.

The bill does not stop “sidewalk counsellors” holding up placards of dead babies, as is their wont. They can hold up placards of dead babies from dawn till dusk. They just cannot do it out the front door of a clinic. And this makes sense. A comparable example: anti-vaxxers are allowed to protest vaccines for children, if they want to, but should they be allowed to protest outside the door of your local GP shouting slurs at anyone who enters, even if they’re just there to get a skin check? Clear heads would agree that’s probably not the place for those protests.

Tanya Davies, had a different problem: she voted against Safe Access Zones because she believes the “sidewalk counsellors” help women see other points of view.

Even if that were the case: are these people trained counsellors? Are they adept at counselling and if so, where’s the oversight on them? Who do they report to? Do they adhere to the Australian Counselling Association Code of Ethics and Practice?
In the ACA Code of Ethics and Practice, for instance, counsellors have a responsibility to their client. Some examples from the code:

Counsellors must provide privacy for counselling sessions. The sessions should not be overheard, recorded or observed by anyone other than the counsellor without informed consent from the client.

Counsellors do not normally give advice.

Counsellors have both a duty of care and a responsibility not to mislead, misguide or misdirect [either overtly by publication or covertly by omission] clients as to the counsellors level of competence, experience or qualifications. To do so is considered to be a most serious ethical breech as it increases the risk of harm to the client and damages the credibility of the profession in the eyes of the general public.

Counsellors must take all reasonable steps to ensure that the client does not suffer physical, emotional or psychological harm during counselling sessions.

If they are not counsellors, and haven’t had training, and adhere to no code of ethics or practice or governing body, perhaps they are not actually counsellors and to name them so undermines the actual counsellors operating in Australia.

As Melanie Gibbons pointed out during the session (tweet from @DebGroarke who live-tweeted the safe access zones debate):

Credit: Twitter @DebGroarke

As detailed in the Sydney Morning Herald, Labor MP Trish Doyle’s statement showed a vastly different perception of "sidewalk counsellors" to our Minister for Women. Doyle stated when she visited a reproductive health clinic, she was "harassed by these judgemental supposed “counsellors”, shouting at (her) that (she) was a “baby killer".

I don’t see how shouting “baby killer” at women is supporting them in any way.

The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, was also unhappy with the result, calling it an attack on "freedom of religion, speech and association."

The Public Health Amendment (Safe Access to Reproductive Health Clinics) Bill 2018 provides a small, 150m bubble of dignity to women accessing medical treatment. Again, I’ll stress that anti-abortion protesters are still free to protest anywhere but that 150m bubble.
And if the Catholic Archbishop truly believes that freedom of religion demands the ability to harass women in front of medical centres, then I suggest they need to have better think about the purpose of religion in our society.

What next? 

In MP Mehreen Faruqui’s words "we need to decriminalisation abortion, which is the crux of the issue of lack of access for women and people who are seeking abortion services."
This was a good win for women’s rights. It won’t be the last.

If you’re unhappy with Tanya Davies’ vote against the bill, you can still tell her:

By Tee Linden


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