Laws that protect the dignity, safety and privacy of women seeking reproductive healthcare should be upheld, the High Court will hear in a case set to begin in Canberra tomorrow.
The Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic and the Human Rights Law Centre have both intervened in the case to defend laws that ensure women and staff can access reproductive health services free from abuse.
Victoria introduced safe access zone laws in 2016. The laws make it an offence to harass, film or intimidate patients or staff within 150 metres of an abortion clinic. The High Court has been asked to determine whether one part of the laws, which prohibits communications "reasonably likely to cause distress or anxiety", is constitutional.
Dr Susie Allanson, who worked as a clinical psychologist at the clinic for 26 years, said the laws had ended decades of harmful abuse and intimidation directed at women and staff outside the clinic.
"Before safe access zones, our patients and staff would have to run a gauntlet of anti-abortionists to enter the clinic. Women would turn up scared and noticeably shaken. In some cases, they were too intimidated to attend their follow-up appointments, which had dangerous implications for their health," Dr Allanson said.
"But since the safe zones came into effect, women and staff are no longer a target when they walk up to the clinic, and women no longer carry the heavy burden of being publicly harassed for seeking medical care."
Katie Robertson from Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, which is representing the abortion clinic pro-bono, said safe access zones protected women’s rights to safely access lawful health services where other legal protections had failed.
"Women have a right to see their doctor free from fear, intimidation or harassment. Safe access zones have succeeded in protecting the privacy, safety and dignity of women seeking reproductive health care. Safe access zones work where other legal protections fail."
Adrianne Walters from the Human Rights Law Centre said the case raises important questions about balancing the rights of women seeking access to medical care and the freedom of political communication in the Constitution.
"Free speech is not a licence to harm others with impunity. We believe that Victoria’s safe access zone laws strike the right balance between freedom of expression and a woman’s right to privately and safely see her doctor," said Walters.
"Anti-abortionists outside clinics have caused serious distress, fear and anxiety to patients and staff. There have even been instances of violence, the worst being the murder of a security guard in Victoria. These laws play a critical role in ensuring women can see their doctor without harassment and abuse," said Walters.
Victoria’s safe access zone laws were introduced following a Supreme Court challenge by the Fertility Control Clinic to end decades of harassment by anti-abortionists outside the Clinic. Maurice Blackburn and the Human Rights Law Centre represented the Clinic.
The anti-abortionist behind the High Court challenge to the laws was convicted of communicating about abortion to a couple in a manner "reasonably likely to cause distress or anxiety" outside the Fertility Control Clinic.
Tasmania, NSW, the ACT and the Northern Territory also have safe access zone laws. A Bill currently before the Queensland Parliament would create safe access zones in that state.
The hearing is scheduled to run for three days from Tuesday 9 October. A similar challenge to Tasmania’s safe access zone laws is also being heard in the High Court at the same time.
The Human Rights Law Centre is being generously assisted on a pro bono basis by DLA Piper and a team of barristers.
Media doorstop opportunity
Susie Allanson, Katie Robertson and Adrianne Walters will be available to speak to media outside the High Court.
When: 9am, Tuesday 9 October
Location: In front of the High Court, Parkes Place, Parke ACT