Dear Members of the Parliament of NSW,
Women across NSW are subject to harassment and intimidation by individuals and organised groups when attempting to access health clinics that provide abortion, reproductive health services, cancer screening and other contraceptive services.
Self-declared sidewalk counsellors wait outside these clinics and behave in a threatening and intimidating manner by:
pushing brochures at those trying to enter the clinic with graphic, inaccurate and offensive images
taking photos and video without permission
physically blocking entry to clinics
calling women "child murderers"
threatening dire and ill-founded medical, spiritual and psychological consequences if women enter a clinic
harassing staff at these clinics
At some clinics, threats and intimidation are a daily occurrence. All women deserve the right to enter all health facilities free from harassment and with their privacy protected. In NSW, women do not have this right.
I urge you to support the Summary Offences Amendment (Safe Access to Reproductive Health Clinics) Bill when it comes before the NSW Parliament this year.
Women in NSW deserve nothing less.
Have you had experience trying to enter clinics in NSW? Your story will help us convince MPs why safe access zones are so important. You will not be identified.
Women in NSW are currently subject to harassment and intimidation by self-declared “sidewalk counsellors” when attempting to access health services that provide family planning, reproductive health and abortion services.
Organised groups and individuals have appointed themselves as coercive counsellors to women and congregate outside clinics where abortions are performed pushing brochures at people with graphic and offensive images, getting in women's faces and blocking entry to clinics, calling women "child murderers" and threatening dire and ill-founded medical, spiritual and psychological consequences.
This has been a particular problem at clinics in Surry Hills and Albury in most recent times, although this harassment occurs at most clinics.
In NSW, abortion is regarded as lawful if performed to prevent serious danger to the woman’s mental and physical health, which includes economic and social pressures.
This is a health service for the well-being of women, but it is a health service at which women are regularly interfered with by so-called “sidewalk counsellors”. No other health service attracts this personal harassment and abuse directed at patients.
Behaviour that intimidates, harasses, leads to fear or anxiety or distress should never be an acceptable occurrence in the lives of women or health service providers at work. Many women and employees report being shoved, abused, threatened and forced to view, by direct intrusion, completely misleading, offensive and graphic pictures or props such as dismembered fetuses as they attend reproductive health clinics.
Medical privacy is a highly regarded principle of our health system, regardless of the type of health service being provided. However, for this particular health service women are routinely harassed, intimidated, hindered and sometimes blocked from the entrance of services or filmed and recorded going about their business, causing distress or anxiety. This is an unacceptable interference with modern health care in Australia.
Put simply, without this bill, many women will be unable to safely access legitimate and legal medical procedures or even simply medical advice. That has to change.
Current laws require a very high bar of criminal behaviour to be reached before police officers can intervene in the type of acts committed by “sidewalk counsellors” who intimidate women. The result is often police simply talking to the assailant rather than stopping them from acting or taking any action to prosecute, unless a violent or physical altercation has occurred.
The law does not yet recognise the harm committed by these deliberate and targeted acts of intimidation and harassment, and the distress and anxiety they cause. We need laws that do.
Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are rights that all modern democracies support and uphold, as we do in NSW. This bill does not interfere with that – let’s be clear, the behaviour and actions of “sidewalk counsellors” outside reproductive health clinics is not protest or the type of speech that is acceptable in any other circumstance, it is simply the intimidation and harassment of individual women who are accessing a medical service.
More so, this proposition has been tested multiple times in courts of the USA and Canada, and each time a sensible and limited safe access zone (such as proposed by this bill) was legally tested, the judge found there were no rights being infringed, and upheld the law.
It has also been confirmed by numerous respected legal authorities including the Law Society of NSW and the Human Rights Law Centre that safe access zone laws such as this are consistent with human rights law.
No one is suggesting that people cannot speak out about their views on abortion or protest against abortion if they wish to, but the place to do that is in front of Parliament where the decisions are made about the laws that govern health services like abortion – not by harassing or abusing women on the footpath outside the clinics they are seeking to enter.
The right of women to go about their daily business, whether that be attending a medical appointment or otherwise, without being harassed or interfered with by another person, is a fundamental right, and a right that should be placed above any other person’s supposed right to try to tell women how to go about their daily business.
Four Australian jurisdictions – Victoria, Tasmania, the ACT and the NT – have recently passed laws that introduce “safe access zones” around abortion clinics. All involve a 150 metre zone.
In these areas, clinicians and staff have reported attending their workplaces without being harassed, abused, or in fear for the first time in their careers. They also report they now have the sort of proper, private and dignified access to their health service available for their patients, which is how medical services should always be provided.
It has also transformed the behaviour of those carrying out the harassment of women from “sidewalk counselling” to a valid form of activity to which citizens have a right: public protest. Previously, the activities outside health clinics in these states, and still occurring in New South Wales, represented intimidation and harassment of individual women, not protest.
The bill is short and very simple. It will create new offences by prohibiting certain behaviour within a radius of 150 metres of a reproductive health clinic where abortions are provided.
The new laws will direct that a person who is in a safe access zone must not harass, intimidate, interfere with, threaten, hinder, obstruct or impede, by any means, any person accessing, leaving, or attempting to access or leave, any reproductive health clinic at which abortions are provided.
The bill will also stop people from obstructing a footpath or road leading to reproductive health clinics, or make a communication that is reasonably likely to cause distress or anxiety to those accessing, leaving, or attempting to access or leave, or is inside a clinic.
The laws will also prohibit people from intentionally capturing visual data (a recording) of another person, by any means, without that other person's consent, if that other person is in a safe access zone and is accessing, leaving, or attempting to access or leave, or is inside, a reproductive health clinic at which abortions are provided. Publishing or distributing a recording will also be barred under the laws.
Importantly, the laws will not impact on gathering at or outside the Parliament of NSW, nor the carrying out of preparations for elections such as surveys and distributing information leaflets.
Sign the open letter at www.womenneedsafeaccesszones.com to send a message to Members of Parliament that women need safe access zones for reproductive health services and that the community demands that we end the harassment of women using these services.
In addition, if you have experienced this sort of intimidation or harassment yourself, you can make a powerful contribution by sharing your story (anonymously) on the website to show MPs and the community that this behaviour exists, that it is unacceptable, and that women need safe access zones.