Anyone who obstructs or harasses a person within 150 metres of an abortion clinic will be liable for up to a year in jail under a bill to amend the Public Health Act, which passed the NSW Legislative Assembly last night.
The law imposes 150 metre “safe access zones” around abortion clinics with maximum penalties for a first offence of a $5500 fine or six months in jail and a fine of $11,000 or one year in jail for a subsequent offence.
It also creates a broad communication offence, which renders it illegal to make “a communication that relates to abortions, by any means”, that could cause “distress or anxiety” to a person accessing or leaving a clinic.
More than 40 MPs spoke in a long debate on the bill, which passed easily by 61 votes to 18 late on Thursday night.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who granted Liberal MPs a conscience vote, supported the bill, as did Nationals leader and Deputy Premier John Barilaro.
Speaking to reporters, the Premier conceded that the bill was flawed technically, but said the intention of the bill – to ensure women have safe access to abortion clinics – was good, which was why she supported it.
Referring to pressure from embattled former federal Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce to oppose the bill, the Deputy Premier John Barilio said it was a state issue and he was proud to support the bill, as were a majority of his colleagues.
As the father of three daughters, he said he would hate for them to be in a position where they were confronted by people filming or “using their right under free speech to take away other freedoms.”
Many of the arguments turned on the need to protect women from “harassment and intimidation” from “sidewalk counsellors” who stand outside clinics and offer women entering the clinics support to seek an alternative to termination.
The Liberal member for North Shore Felicity Wilson said the bill struck the right balance between protecting freedom of speech and ensuring women approaching abortion clinics were free from harassment and intimidation.
Among those speaking against the bill, Damien Tudehope, Liberal member for Epping, objected to the bill being brought forward as a public health issue rather than a law-and-order issue.
“If it is claimed that the expression of viewpoints causes harm to others, such an allegation must be supported by evidence,” he said.
Any objectionable behaviour should be dealt with by the police using the powers currently available to them under the criminal law.
“Those persons who have voluntarily provided their time to support the women about possible alternatives have largely in this place been demeaned and patronised.” – Damien Tudehope
“This bill is, was and always will be a law-and-order issue. Every member of this house ought to oppose it on the basis that there is sufficient law in place to deal with such behaviour without the necessity of attacking free speech in the extreme manner in which this bill does.”
Tudehope said that when he was in practice as a lawyer he did several cases for women who had been hurt by abortion.
“Those persons who have voluntarily provided their time to support the women about possible alternatives have largely in this place been demeaned and patronised by the speeches made both here and in the other place. They’re pigeonholed as judgmental, their crime suggesting that there may be an alternative worth considering and why wouldn’t they – the evidence is on their side.”
He tabled a paper summarising studies about the impact of abortion in various mental health issues and substance abuse.
“If we are really concerned about women’s health then these studies would underpin a committee inquiry into the manner in which women are hurt by abortion and what we should be doing to improve outcomes for them, he said.
“As a result of the alternatives offered by sidewalk counsellors to women who are seeking to access abortion clinics is there are hundreds of children alive today because someone offered them an alternative. Are we really saying to all those children ‘We wish you didn’t exist?’
“This bill is draconian in its form and intent. It seeks to criminalise dissent. Persons who are entirely law-abiding would as a result of this bill become liable to imprisonment for words which may cause potential anxiety and distress .. this is an extreme and unjustified violation of freedom of speech.”
Pro-life supporter Carolyn O’Loughlin maintained a vigil outside parliament while other protesters went inside the chamber to listen to the debate.
“Even by just praying outside an abortion clinic will lead to arrest and heavy penalties.” – Carolyn O’Loughlin
She said she believed it was her duty to speak on behalf of unborn children, adding that a woman she spoke to had changed her mind about having an abortion just two weeks ago.
She added that pro-life groups helped women with money when they changed their minds whereas the abortion clinics just took money.
“The bill is a blatant attack on free speech, freedom of political expression and freedom of religion. Christ said ‘Whatever you did for the least of my brethren you did also for me.’ Yet following this through, even by just praying outside an abortion clinic will lead to arrest and heavy penalties.
“There is an ever increasing tendency for radicals to silence or censor anyone who disagrees with them. They never worry that what they say may offend others. This is because they only believe in free speech for themselves.”