THE McGowan Government says it’s committed to ensuring women seeking an abortion can have safe and private access to health services without fear of harassment or intimidation.
After two and a half years of deliberation, the Safe Access Zones Bill, was re-introduced into WA Parliament on Wednesday (May 26), having previously missed the cut-off to be heard by the Upper House before this year’s election was called.
The new legislation, based on Victoria’s laws, would enforce a 150-metre exclusion zone around abortion clinics to stop protestors from congregating outside.
It was formed off the back of a public survey in 2019 which found 70 per cent of the 4,100 respondents supported the measure.
Most who rejected the bill cited religious beliefs and the fear that women would be “coerced” into abortions.
But women’s interests minister Simone McGurk said examples used by protestors were a “convenient excuse to meet their ends.
“This reasonable measure is already successfully helping women in other jurisdictions with appropriate access to legal medical procedures,” Ms McGurk said.
“It is well and truly time to bring WA into line with the rest of the country.”
The bill prohibits any behaviour, including photography or signage “reasonably likely to cause distress or anxiety” to someone accessing an abortion clinic.
The maximum penalty for breeching the exclusion zones would be a $12,000 fine and 12 months’ imprisonment.
“The penalty rates really reflect the seriousness of the offence,” says Jamal Hakim, managing director of abortion provider Marie Stopes Australia.
“It gets worse every year, and every Lent it gets worse,” Mr Hakim said.
He said the actions of religious groups are “stigmatising and attacking women, and coercing people away from their bodily autonomy and choice”.
Marie Stopes nurse unit manager Leigh Keane said the company spent more than $6,000 upgrading its Midland clinic’s security cameras after Right to Life advocates had spent almost 3,000 hours picketing outside.
“I have worked for Marie Stopes Australia for five and a half years and the picketers that assemble outside our clinic have had a cumulative impact on me, my team, and the clients in our care,” Ms Keane, said.
Human Rights Law Centre associate legal director Monique Hurley said “these laws are an important step towards bringing Western Australia’s laws in line with the rest of the country.
“We urge all members of the Western Australian Parliament to stand up for reproductive rights and vote in favour of enacting safe access zones”.
Ms Hurley said the next step towards furthering women’s reproductive rights in WA be to fully decriminalise abortion.
“Until abortion is removed completely from the criminal law, pregnant people’s reproductive health will continue to be compromised,” she said.
During the bill’s first outing before Parliament in November last year, Burns Beach Labor MLA Mark Folkard had a bone to pick with the penalty rates.
“I would triple the 150 metres,” he said, commenting on his experiences patrolling abortion clinics in the late ‘90s as a policeman.
“I watched the bullying tactics that they used as people approached the clinic or drove up in cars, and how they would spit on cars or throw water on cars,” he said.
Mr Folkard recalled one “particularly tall fellow” who took photos of a teenage girl approaching the clinic, “yelling at her, that he was going to show the world her face, and what she was doing.
“The closer she got, the more abuse, intimidation and harassment she received.”
Mr Folkard said that half an hour after the girl went into the clinic, an ambulance pulled up at the front with its sirens on.
“This girl had gone into the toilets and used a set of nail clippers to try and tear her wrists apart in an attempt at suicide.”
He said that while he chaperoned the girl into the ambulance “she just kept saying ‘he’s got my photo, he’s got my photo’”.
Mr Folkard said he’d arrested the tall man who took the photos, but the only offence he could be charged with at the time was disorderly conduct.
“As I said, when I talk about this issue, I would triple the 150 metres,” he said.
“For the penalties involved, I would double it, because what those people did to that poor young girl, I will never forget”.
by KELLY WARDEN