In June this year Greens state MP Mehreen Faruqi placed a bill on notice in the upper house of the NSW Parliament to open debate on decriminalising abortion in the state. The state’s abortion laws, sections 82-84 of the Crimes Act, make abortion a crime for the woman and any person performing or assisting in any way with the procedure. These measures are completely out of step with current abortion practice and societal views on the accessibility of safe abortion for women having to make the often difficult personal decision about unplanned pregnancy.

Since 1969 several landmark cases in NSW and other states have modified the actual application of sections 82-84. Certainly in Sydney and other urban areas there are safe, licensed services offering both surgical and medical abortion. Do we really need, then, to change the law and decriminalise the practice?

That the answer is a resounding yes is shown by the current situation in Albury. For some years the Fertility Control Clinic on Engelhardt Street has offered termination of pregnancy one day a week to women from the region.  As abortion is not easily available in other regional towns a population of around 300,000 is served by this arrangement, which is conducted by an experienced medical practitioner visiting from Melbourne.

Since its beginning this clinic has been targeted by anti-abortion protesters gathering on the pavement, obstructing passing pedestrians and women entering the clinic, handing out unwanted literature and making unwanted and unpleasant comments to women attending the clinic — and others simply walking by. While such protests are a fact of life outside most Australian abortion services, this abuse — coming from Catholic organisation The Helpers of God’s Precious Infants — has been particularly virulent. There are no strangers in country towns; on many occasions women seeking the clinic’s services have experienced verbal abuse  long after their trip to the clinic, being pursued while shopping at the supermarket or collecting their kids from school.

Concerned about these violations of lawful rights to respect and privacy, a group of local residents formed Albury Choice. They gathered the signatures of 5500 local residents and presented a petition to Albury Council in March this year, requesting that the council use bylaws available to it to restrict the protesters’ activities. The council decided not to grant the petitioners’ request.

Undaunted,  Albury Choice and retired Albury gynaecologist Pieter Mourik  are now gathering signatures to petition the Legislative Assembly in Sydney, seeking recognition of the need for exclusion zones not only in Albury but around all clinics in NSW providing abortion services. Some 10,000 signatures are required, and the process is well in hand.

Rural women in all parts of Australia are particularly disadvantaged when they need to access abortion, often travelling a considerable distance to access services. Privacy is also difficult in small communities; a number of women from the Albury region choose to travel to Melbourne for abortion to avoid the protests in Engelhardt Street.

Earlier this year the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne initiated legal action to compel Melbourne City Council to use public nuisance laws to restrict protests outside the clinic in Wellington Parade, which have occurred unabated since the clinic’s opening in 1972. These protests continue; indeed, the problem is endemic in all mainland states.

Only Tasmania has acted to introduce so-called “bubble zones” — a restricted zone of 150 metres  radius around a service providing abortions in which protests cannot occur. This was part of the legislation that largely decriminalised abortion in the island state almost a year ago with little fanfare elsewhere in the country. Tasmania in practice now has probably the most liberal legislation in Australia, although Tasmanian police have sensibly declined to arrest protesters from interstate attempting to flout the regulation.

At present, a doctor performing an abortion is committing a crime that could have to be defended in court under case law. This branding of abortion as a crime limits the number of medical practitioners willing to undertake abortion — or even to refer women to other providers — and perpetuates the stigma attached to abortion. Faruqi’s bill would decriminalise it and also seek to make provision for exclusion zones, as has been easily achieved in Tasmania.

Representatives from 16 NSW clinics providing abortion, contraception and family planning services met recently in Sydney to discuss joint action to bring about the introduction of exclusion zones for clinics throughout the state. The NSW Parliament must listen to what is being said, and act, so that all women seeking reproductive healthcare can do so without restriction of their rights to respect and privacy.

Peter Fray

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