Understanding Victoria’s Abortion Protest Laws

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Police question an anti-abortion protester outside of the East Melbourne Fertility Clinic.

On the fourth Saturday of every month, the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants finish their service at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and walk the 1.1 km to the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic. The procession, known to the locals as the “Rosary Parade”, has taken place since the clinic opened in 1972. Anywhere from 50 to a 100 members of the group congregate outside the clinic’s gates holding images of foetuses captioned “Alive and Growing” and “This Is a Baby at 3 Weeks”. They link arms to pray and sing hymns from paper booklets. Some clutch Baby Borns to their chest, while others dangle crosses from outstretched hands. They bombard women trying to enter the clinic with pamphlets and flyers and beg them not to “kill their babies”.

The East Melbourne Fertility Clinic holds special meaning for anti-abortion groups in Australia. The founder of the clinic, Bertram Wainer, was an Australian doctor who took on the fight for legalised abortion in 1967 after a woman came to his medical clinic seeking emergency treatment after a back-yard abortion.

In her book Lost: Illegal Abortion Stories Dr Jo Wainer, Betram Wainer’s wife, recounts the horrors of illegal abortion through collected testimonies:

You found them through an underground network – taxi drivers, pubs, mates (it was usually the responsibility of the man involved to find the abortion provider and to pay for the abortion. The woman just risked her body, her life and her dignity). In addition to that, there were non-medically trained abortion providers, the most famous of whom was a butcher by trade who operated on kitchen tables around Footscray. Of course, not being a doctor, he didn’t have access to anesthetics so he used to stuff a rag in the woman’s mouth to stop her screaming and disturbing the neighbours.

When the 1969 Menhennitt ruling came into effect, legalising abortions approved by two doctors and performed to preserve the health of the mother, Wainer established the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne. Slowly the topic of abortion stepped out of the dark corners where it had festered for so long.

The clinic also has a rich history of counter-protests. Eleven years ago, grassroots social feminist organisation Radical Women founded the Coalition for Women’s Reproductive Rights (CWRR) to begin a monthly clinic defence. The aim of the demonstration was to form a defence line against the Helpers. The first monthly clinic defence began in August 2005 and, after 33 years on the frontline, the Helpers were forced to conduct their protest from the other side of the road.

One of the key organisers of CWWR and Radical Women is Debbie Brennan. She states that the main reason CWWR was formed was because those in power were not doing enough to defend the women and staff. “We have always insisted”, Debbie says, “that the only thing that has protected that clinic has been a solid defence line of grassroots activists – not the cops and not Melbourne City Council.”

Crackdown on protests has favoured anti-abortion groups. In 2010 Melbourne City Council issued a compliance order against the CWWR – this was the first time the city’s bylaws had been enforced to protect the Fertility Clinic. The order was against a banner held by activists, which said, “Free Safe Abortion On Demand Now”. CWWR were told that the banner constituted “an unauthorised portable sign in a public place”, a similar tactic to that used by the council against the Occupy Melbourne protestors in 2011. Radical Women responded with a free speech campaign accompanied by a petition that called for the council to retract the compliance order. The petition quickly collected over 60,000 signatures. Debbie says they were told it was the first time Council had ever withdrawn a notice to comply.

Staff from the East Melbourne Fertility Clinic supported the actions taken by Council against the CWWR. At the time the clinic’s psychologist, Dr Allanson, was quoted saying, ‘‘we don’t want any picketing directly outside the clinic.”

The council stopped short of enforcing these bylaws on the Helpers, who continued their harassment. In June 2015, the East Melbourne Fertility Clinic took the Melbourne City Council to the Supreme Court arguing they had failed to act under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act, which states that Council has a duty to take action against “nuisances” that are “dangerous to health or offensive.” The Clinic presented evidence of the protesters making misleading and frightening statements to staff and patients, lashing out at women passing by and singing in the back alleyway so loudly that they could be heard from inside the building. Although the judge presiding over the case agreed that this behaviour could constitute a nuisance, he ultimately ruled that Melbourne City Council could not be compelled to intervene.

In May of 2016, an exclusion zone around Victorian abortion providers came into effect, banning any type of demonstration within 150 metres of a clinic. To the women and staff accessing these facilities, the law is a resounding victory. To the average person passing by the street, it would seem like the anti-abortion movement has vanished into obscurity. Radical Women and the CWRR take a different perspective: “When that clinic is targeted again, and it will be targeted again, we won’t be there to defend it. [The exclusion zone] is against us as well.”

It is naïve to think that a protest ban will somehow quash the vehement anti-abortion sentiment that drives groups such as the Helpers. A state restriction on free speech is also something to be wary of. Victoria’s recent history with anti-protest laws should make us wary of further legislation.

There is no evidence that the Helpers or other anti-abortion groups have slowed their fight. A new Infant Viability Bill championed by pro-life activists is being pushed in front of the Victorian courts. The bill is the first formal attempt at pro-life legislation in Victoria in decades. Although unlikely to pass, it targets a weak spot in the pro-choice movement – late term abortions.

Anti-abortion groups are deeply connected to the conservative right in Australia. Their power to influence state policy should not be underestimated. Just last week it was revealed that conservative church groups are being targeted in a Liberal Party membership recruitment drive. We would also do well to remember that abortion is still considered a criminal offence in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Northern Territory.

Renewed debate in Queensland and NSW will likely see a gradual shift forward in the battle for legalisation. In the meantime, hundreds of women will be caught in the middle, and hundreds of doctors will continue to risk prosecution to help them.

 

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