Professor Caroline de Costa, James Cook University writes:

In June this year Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi placed a bill on notice in the upper house of the NSW parliament to initiate debate on decriminalising abortion in the state. There is a growing wave of public  support for this long overdue change in NSW. The state’s abortion laws, sections 82-84 of the Crimes Act, make abortion a crime for the woman herself and any person performing or assisting in any way with the procedure. These measures date back to the 19th century and 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 abortions both surgical and medical (the latter using approved drugs to bring about the process). Do we really need, then, to change the law in NSW and decriminalise?

That the answer is a resounding yes as demonstrated by the current situation in Albury. For some years a freestanding clinic in Albury, the Fertility Control Clinic, 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. The Clinic is situated in the commercial and residential area of Engelhardt Street.

Since its inception this clinic has been the butt of anti-abortion protesters gathering on the pavement, obstructing passing pedestrians and women entering the clinic, handing out unwanted literature and most of all making unwanted and unpleasant comments to women attending the clinic and others simply passing by. While such protests are a fact of life outside most Australian abortion services, the abuse of the Albury protestors, who identify themselves as members of a Catholic organisation, The Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, has been particularly virulent.

As a result a group of Albury residents, concerned about the violation of the lawful rights of the people of Albury and the region to feel comfortable when going about their daily business, including visiting the Fertility Control Clinic, formed Albury Choice. They gathered the signatures of 5,500 local residents who were equally concerned and presented a petition to Albury Council in March this year, requesting the Council to use By Laws available to it to restrict the protesters’ activities. However the council decided not to grant the petitioners request.

Undaunted,  Albury Choice and retired Albury gynaecologist Dr 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 and this is certainly true for women in many NSW country town and remote areas. There may be no service whatsoever in their region; even when there is a service women may still need to travel a substantial distance.  Women need to know where services are and how to access them; they need to be able to travel; and they often need to be able to conceal the purpose of their travel from local family and friends, all of which can be very challenging in small communities. It is known that a number of women from the Albury region choose to travel to Melbourne for abortion, in order 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 inception in 1972. However 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 abortion in which protests cannot occur. This was part of the legislation which almost a year ago largely decriminalised abortion in the island state, with very little fanfare elsewhere in the country. Tasmania in practice now has probably the most liberal legislation in Australia, since it includes the very important bubble zones. Tasmanian police have sensibly declined to arrest protesters from interstate who have attempted to flout the regulation.

Dr Faruqi’s planned Bill would decriminalise abortion in NSW where at present, in performing an abortion a doctor commits a crime which could have to be defended in court on the basis of case law. The continuing branding of abortion as a crime limits the number of medical practitioners willing to undertake abortion, and even to refer women, and perpetuates the stigma attached to abortion. Dr Faruqi’s Bill would also seek to make provision for exclusion zones as has been easily achieved in Tasmania.

Representatives from sixteen NSW clinics providing abortion, contraception and family planning services are 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.

A version of this article was originally published in Crikey.

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