Mar 13, 2014

Anti-abortion street harassment is not peaceful protest

A women's health clinic is taking Melbourne City Council to court to force it to protect the health and wellbeing of patients and staff. Maurice Blackburn associate Lizzie O'Shea says the anti-abortion activists outside the clinic are not exercising their rights to free assembly, they are threatening the health of vulnerable women.

For decades, patients and staff of Melbourne’s Fertility Control Clinic, which provides abortions and other reproductive services, have been subjected to harassment and intimidation by members of a group called Helpers of God’s Precious Infants (HOGPI). Patients and staff are yelled at, abused, called murderers and whores. They are told all sorts of misinformation about reproductive health, horrifying imagery is regularly on display, and sometimes HOGPI members try to blockade people from entering the clinic.

There is nothing polite or peaceful about their behaviour, and the vast majority of Australians would be appalled by it. In fact, when a security guard was shot dead by an anti-abortion activist Peter James Knight a decade ago, HOGPI was back on the street the next day, harassing people. Needless to say, it is very difficult to treat patients in this climate, especially when much time is wasted trying to calm patients down after they have run the gauntlet of abuse to arrive at the front door.

HOGPI members do not consider themselves to be protesting; they consider themselves as being on the front line of trying to stop abortions. Freedom of expression is fundamental to our democracy, and I would defend the rights of pro-lifers to express their views on the steps of Spring Street. But this is not about opinions strongly held or expressed, it is about harassment. The conduct is a threat to the health of women who access the clinic and the wellbeing of staff who work there.

Yesterday, the Fertility Control Clinic issued proceedings in the Supreme Court against the City of Melbourne. This case is about public health. The council is the subject of this case because of duties it has under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008. Under section 60, a council has a duty to remedy as far as is reasonably possible all nuisances existing in its municipal district. The definition of nuisance includes activities that are dangerous to health. In this instance, the activities of HOGPI cause harm to staff members, who suffer increased levels of stress and fear being assaulted. It causes distress to patients and jeopardises their ongoing care, especially if they are too upset, threatened or frightened to return to the clinic for follow-up treatment.

Maurice Blackburn, which is representing the clinic, is asking the court to make an order in mandamus, or perform a duty imposed by law. We have formally written to the council twice asking Melbourne City Council to remedy this nuisance, and the clinic has made numerous advances to many different authorities over the years, including the council. These complaints have fallen on deaf ears. It is with great reluctance that the clinic has resorted to litigation, and it is very much open to resolving this outside of this court process.

Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.

Because it is a council matter, not a police one, it was with some surprise that I read the comments of Lord Mayor Robert Doyle yesterday. Doyle indicated he was sympathetic to the clinic’s concerns but essentially, in respect of the allegations of inaction, his hands were tied. “Unless we are there, it is very, very difficult; we refer to police. We have felt quite impotent in what we have been able to do,” Doyle said. “That’s why I’m delighted that these move-on laws will apply to these protesters.”

While we welcome the spirit of Doyle’s comments, in our view he is wrong. The new, amended “move on” powers are the purview of police; they have nothing to do with councils. The amendments to these powers have no relevance to whether they could be used against HOGPI. The police already had such powers at their disposal for a long time before these amendments and did not put them to use in this case. We also respectfully disagree with his praise of the “move on” powers, as the broad-ranging nature of the amendments gives rise to a very real possibility they will be susceptible to abuse.

Moreover, the council has very clear powers under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act to remedy the nuisance, including specifically bringing proceedings to penalise individual nuisances. The council also has a range of powers it could use, including the making or enforcing of bylaws as necessary. There are many examples of how other jurisdictions have dealt with this issue, including in Tasmania, where an access zone of 150 metres was recently put in place around a similar health service. The bottom line is that the council’s impotence is a function of politics, not law.

Having said all that, we are thrilled that Doyle finally seems to recognise that there is actually a problem with what is happening outside the clinic. Until now, the council had refused to acknowledge that this was the case — when we wrote to councillors, they denied a nuisance was even occurring.


Leave a comment

16 thoughts on “Anti-abortion street harassment is not peaceful protest

  1. Dion Giles

    The state, the council, the legal profession, the church – when it’s predators vs prey they seem to line up reliably on the side of the predators. The prey don’t like to be harassed by the predators, and the various organs of the state tell the prey they have to put up with it. For years. I wonder which way the men born to rule would treat people who responded to orgnised harassment of women patients by bunging on demos – abuse, slogans, the lot – outside Roman church services? Week in week out? Any chance they’d sool the law on them?

  2. rhwombat

    What an apposite acronym. I presume HOGPI are funded by Fundies, some of whom have American accents.

  3. wayne wilson

    So the protests where these babies are being slaughtered are not peaceful, would you also be whining if people protested Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust and were not being peaceful, NO. The murder of unborn babies is a disgrace and those involved should be charged with murder. Good on those protesters for standing up for the rights of the child and against the infanticide of these babies, abortion is not a means of birth control, we have condoms, pills and even the morning after pill for that.

  4. wayne wilson

    Abortion is the ultimate violence against a child.

  5. Dion Giles

    There is moral force in Wayne Wilson’s comment, though it overlooks the fact that there are two human beings in a pregnant woman, not just the one. What has to be asked is where the so-called “pro-life” mob and their parties and churches were when killers were plastering the men, women and foetuses of Vietnam, Cambodia and Iraq with thousands of tons of bombs in the ultimate violence against the living targets on the basis of a tissue of lies.

  6. rhwombat

    wayne wilson: eeeevery sperm is sacred….

  7. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Wayne, you are a bloke. What would you know about “means of birth control”? What means of birth control do you use? Oh, I see, none – because you can’t give birth. How dare you presume to know what other people think, want or desire for themselves, their partners or their children?

  8. Steven Grant Haby

    + 1 Hugh. Agree.

    Wayne – let me pose a question to you.

    A simple question.

    Your wife / significant other / girlfriend / sister is sexually assaulted i.e. raped and becomes pregnant.

    What happens then?

    What happens then?

    I’ll ask the question again in case you don’t get it.

    What happens then?

    I have walked past these odious individuals many times … they are the lowest of the low of protesters.

    A woman has the RIGHT to determine her own body’s destiny. Not any narrow minded zealots. Not anyone.

    I look forward to your response.


  9. Jill Baird

    if you are so concerned about saving infant lives, Wayne, why don’t you give all you own to help save the lives of those thousands of infants who die every day of malnutrition?

  10. Steven Grant Haby

    +1 Jill

    Good call 🙂

    Agree 100%

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details