Speech in reply on the Public Health Amendment (Safe Access to Reproductive Health Clinics) Bill 2018 (Sharpe)

In Parliament | 24.05.18

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE (17:46): In reply: I thank everyone who has spoken in this debate. I have participated in many similar debates and they have not been as respectful as the one we have had today. I thank everyone for the respectful nature of debate. The bill before us today, if passed, will be a small but important change in the law for women in New South Wales. There have been a number of issues raised in this debate. I will address them in turn. Members will be pleased to hear that I will be mercifully brief.

But before I do this I wish to share some of the stories that women and staff who work at clinics in New South Wales have generously shared with me and asked me to share with members of Parliament. I note that the Hon. Catherine Cusack indicated that we had not shared those stories; I am going to do that now. Because of the deeply personal nature of the services that women receive in reproductive health clinics, most wish to maintain their privacy and are very reluctant to publicly talk about their experiences outside these clinics. I thank the women who have shared their stories with me over the past years as I have tried to gather support for safe access zones. I will not identify these women but these are direct quotes from what they have told me. One said:

Many years ago I opted to terminate my pregnancy. I was hounded from the time I got out of the car until I was inside the clinic. People were yelling, they held signs and forced pamphlets into the hands of those who passed.

Another woman said:

The key reason behind my anxiety and traumatic stress response post-abortion is the shame and stigma perpetuated by such people, my own family included, as protestors. You can never understand how difficult a decision like this is when your family will disown you either way.

The fear of being found out will be a shame I hold for my whole life, a secret that has split my developing years into a pre and post, together and alone, a narrowing of my world by those who have no right to own it.

Allowing protests outside clinics traumatises women seeking abortions to save their own lives—medically, emotionally, financially, socially and academically. Now working in mental health, I can barely hold in my tears when I see other young women present with the same stories, the same shattering kept silent for months to years that has slowly pulled them apart at the centre. This self-destruction is usually not about whether or not they ended a life, it is constructed around the guilt and public stigma enforced by those who reject a woman's bodily sovereignty. Allow safe zones, allow safe medical practice, reject the stigma, and encourage support for women who need nothing but, regardless of their choice. It comes down to one woman, one womb, one fetus; and strangers who choose to torment women living other lives with hate speech should at least be kept at a distance to promote respect for supportive and holistic healthcare.

Another woman states:

I grew up in the ACT. My parents are pro-lifers and for many years myself and my siblings were taken to protests in the ACT and NSW where women were told they were murderers and that the unborn baby was worth more than them. The looks of terror and fear have not left me.

As I grew older I realised what was happening and saw the look of terror in the women's faces for what they were and understood the abuse and injustice.

Another woman states:

I do not do pregnancy well. Both my live births nearly killed me, and in one instance, the infant died for over ten minutes before he could be extracted. I have had seven pregnancies and only two survived. I have never lost a baby by choice, but I can't say what choices I may have made had they not been made for me.

As one pregnancy became increasingly complicated, I had to attend a clinic in Sydney after the pregnancy was considered dangerous and I was medically advised to have a termination. It was decided that it was better that I should attend the clinic prior to the situation becoming a serious emergency, rather than take up an emergency theatre at that time. The developing foetus was semi-ectopic, threatening to rupture my fallopian tube, and the pain it was causing me was beyond description. I was unable to stand up straight. I had a 7 year old to look after and I could not risk dying and leaving him alone. Still, making the choice to follow medical advice was the hardest thing I've ever done, and I grieve her every year when the gardenias come out.

I don't know if you can possibly imagine the horrendous psychological agony involved with having to be physically manhandled and verbally abused as I approached and entered the premises, after making the decision I had had to make. I hope you, or your wives or daughters, never have to experience that. And the terrible guilt my partner felt for not "protecting" me — as I'd asked him, for me, to hold his head high and not to respond to them in any way.

The women who are attending for other reasons have a right to privacy and peace. The men who already feel powerless, have a right to privacy and peace.

Yet another woman states:

I attended a clinic with my mother. I was 18, pregnant and scared. My boyfriend, now husband of nearly 30 years was at his job fretting. The monsters out the front of the clinic had lined the footpath on both sides. They were loud and pushy, shoving big posters at us and placing brochures in our faces. They were calling us names, invoking bible passages at us and jostling us. My mother shielded me as best she could. We did not engage them, there was no point for as far as they are concerned they are right and you are wrong. The people in the clinic were wonderful, I do not in any way regret my abortion or think about it in a negative way, I was counselled and firm in my mind that I could not care nor provide for a baby. What still scares me and gives me nightmares are the awful people who abused and tried to stop me from attending the clinic. They didn't know me or my story—why I was there, yet they stood in judgement of me, abused me and told me what I had to do with my body. These people tried to take away my rights as a human being, my right to my body. To force me to do as they wanted.

I am lucky, I had the love, support and strength of my mother and my partner to help me through my trauma. Every now and then I still wake up in a cold sweat amongst a sea of faces abusing me and calling me a murderer. This needs to stop. These people need to stop.

We have had a comprehensive discussion about protests and the right to engage in peaceful assembly. The right to protest is a fundamental right that parliaments have a responsibility to protect within our democracy. This bill protects that right. It makes the important distinction that what is happening outside clinics in New South Wales is not protest; it is the targeting of individuals who are seeking lawful medical treatment. These women who are targeted have no ability to change the laws dealing with abortion, and they have no desire to be challenged about deeply private matters by complete strangers, nor should they. What is happening outside clinics is not protest; it is harassment, even if it is well intentioned.

Freedom of religion is also a fundamental right that parliaments have a responsibility to protect. This bill makes it explicit that churches and other religious organisations are free to go about their business on their own land and to communicate with their community. What this bill also protects is the right of people to be free from religion when they are going about their daily lives, including going to see a doctor. This bill explicitly protects political communication on the issue of abortion. People are free to communicate and to campaign on the issue. What this bill carefully balances is where they can do that. They can do it anywhere except within 150 metres of a reproductive health clinic. Some members used this debate to try to confuse the issue and make it much more complicated than it is. I ask them to read the definition of "access zone" in the bill and note where it applies and under what circumstances. The bill is very clear on those issues.

All individuals have a right to an opinion and the right to campaign on their opinions when it comes to abortion. What individuals do not have is the right to an audience. If this bill is passed, this House will be saying very clearly that the elected representatives in this Parliament do not believe that women making choices about their own health should be subjected to views of others delivered in public by strangers in an aggressive, intimidating and threatening manner. The people seeking to interfere with women going into clinics have an ideological agenda that has nothing to with what is in the best interests of the women who are seeking treatment. This bill recognises the ability of women to make decisions about their own health. Quite simply, it is no-one else's business.

There has been much discussion about whether this bill will be challenged in the High Court, as similar bills in Victoria and Tasmania have been. This issue has been well canvassed by members in this debate, and I do not intend to reiterate the detail now. Both the Hon. Trevor Khan and I have worked hard to draft a bill that we believe will withstand any challenge, and in doing so we have drawn on the work done in Victoria. These issues were considered in detail in Victoria and, again, this bill reflects these considerations. It is well within the remit of this Parliament to legislate in this way, and I urge members to do so.

We have had extensive debate about so-called sidewalk counsellors, and I know that they have approached members. Members have been urged to reject this bill because these individuals believe they have a right to stand on the footpath outside a clinic and wait until a patient tries to enter and then approach them, block them and offer them some sort of counselling. It is counselling provided by people with no appropriate qualifications, it is not sought by the patient, and it provides misleading and false information regarding abortion. That is not counselling; it is interference. It is a gross invasion of privacy. We know from the staff at clinics and from women themselves that this is not benign; it is doing harm. Even those who do this with the best of intentions must understand that it is doing harm. If they do not wish to cause harm, they should stop.

I will specifically address Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile's allegations about a clinic on Macquarie Street. The allegations are false and they always have been false. I have a statement from the clinic that I will read onto the record because it is time for the member to stop making these allegations. It states:

The claims made by Reverend Fred Nile are completely false.

The plumbing problem referenced was not caused by the business. It was caused by a damaged pipe in another part of the building.

Clinical waste bins are collected regularly from the facility by a certified medical waste company. The clinic complies with all health regulations.

It was wrong of Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile to make the assertion he made today. The Hon. Taylor Martin and the Hon. Paul Green referred to Sara's Place, which is a pregnancy counselling service across the road from the private clinic in Surry Hills. The operators have rightly been concerned about the impact on their facility. Although the Hon. Paul Green read onto the record my response to correspondence from Sara's Place, I will read it again. It states: We understand your service, whilst in relatively close proximity to the Private Clinic on Devonshire Street, does not involve intercepting those who are going to or from that reproductive health clinic and therefore, in our view, you are not caught by the terms of the bill.

I mean that sincerely and we believe it will be correct. It has been a long debate. I thank everyone for their contributions. I particularly thank the Hon. Trevor Khan for his work on the bill. You can try to make this very, very complicated or you can make it very, very simple. I believe this is very, very simple. Women have the right to make the decisions that are in their best interest without the interference of others, whether that is with malicious intent or genuinely thinking you are helping. It is not helping.

Women should be able to go to the doctor and not have to explain themselves to strangers on the street. They should not have to be photographed. Their boyfriends should not have to be jostled. They should not be filmed. They should not be assaulted. They should not be called "baby murderers". They should not be told they are going to hell. They should not be told that they should be repenting their sins. They should just be able to go to the doctor. If this bill passes today, that is what we will let them do. I thank everyone for their contributions and I commend the bill to the House.

The PRESIDENT: The question is that this bill be now read a second time, to which the Hon. Matthew Mason-Cox has moved an amendment. The question is that the amendment of the Hon. Matthew Mason-Cox be agreed to.

The House divided.

Ayes 12

Noes 26

Majority 14


Amato, Mr L

Borsak, Mr R

Brown, Mr R

Clarke, Mr D

Cusack, Ms C

Farlow, Mr S

Green, Mr P (teller)

Maclaren-Jones, Mrs (teller)

Martin, Mr T

Mason-Cox, Mr M

Nile, Revd

Phelps, Dr P




Blair, Mr

Buckingham, Mr J

Colless, Mr R

Fang, Mr W (teller)

Faruqi, Dr M

Field, Mr J

Franklin, Mr B

Graham, Mr J

Houssos, Ms C

Khan, Mr T

MacDonald, Mr S

Mallard, Mr S

Mitchell, Mrs

Mookhey, Mr D

Moselmane, Mr S (teller)

Pearson, Mr M

Primrose, Mr P

Searle, Mr A

Secord, Mr W

Sharpe, Ms P

Shoebridge, Mr D

Taylor, Mrs

Veitch, Mr M

Walker, Ms D

Ward, Ms P

Wong, Mr E




Amendment negatived.

The PRESIDENT: The question is that this bill be now read a second time.

Motion agreed to.

Third Reading

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE: I move:

That this bill be now read a third time.

Motion agreed to.

The PRESIDENT: Order! Members will cease applauding. Earlier I gave the same instruction to visitors in the public gallery. It does not set a good example when members do not follow my instructions.

Legislative Council, 24 May 2018