The Push for Exclusion Zones In NSW
On the 30 March 2017, NSW Labor MLC Penny Sharpe introduced a bill to amend the Summary Offences Act 1988 and enact exclusion zones of 150m around abortion clinics in NSW.
This bill would have made it a criminal offence for a person within exclusion zones to communicate in any manner in relation to abortion, that may be perceived as distressing or causing anxiety to a person who is entering or leaving a clinic. The maximum penalty under this bill was $16,500 or imprisonment for 12 months.
This was an extreme and ill-conceived bill which would have criminalised citizens who are not otherwise harassing, hindering or intimidating women outside clinics, but who are simply offering them help or assembling outside a clinic in a peaceful manner.
The Origin of Abortion Rethink
Penny Sharpe’s bill followed an earlier bill in NSW debated on in May 2017. This bill by NSW Green’s MLC Mehreen Faruqi would have removed abortion from the NSW Crimes Act and also established 150-metre exclusion zones around abortion clinics. This move to decriminalise abortion in NSW was voted down after a passionate debate between MLCs and an intense campaign by Abortion Rethink and a coalition of concerned organisations and individuals against the bill.
The Abortion Rethink ‘grassroots’ initiative originated in QLD in 2016 where it was integral to the defeat of two extreme bills to decriminalise abortion in that state. The campaign expanded to NSW in March 2017 under the governance of Women & Babies Support (WOMBS). Abortion Rethink worked with other organisations in NSW against Mehreen Faruqi’s bill and a coalition was formed. The efforts of this coalition and the Abortion Rethink campaign resulted in the defeat of Mehreen Faruqi’s abortion bill. It was an intense two months of campaigning before the vote in May which produced a parliamentary petition against the bill (which garnered 59,559 signatures), a galaxy poll of NSW citizens on abortion, a specialist panel event at Parliament House, a public rally against the bill outside Parliament House on the day of the vote and a strong online social media presence and updates through the website, www.abortionrethink.org
Hearing from the Parents
Abortion Rethink has remained working with its coalition partners in NSW to address Penny Sharpe’s Exclusion Zones bill. Abortion Rethink organised a briefing event for parliamentarians at NSW Parliament House on the 21 June. Two couples, Aashika and Suya and Huma and Ali and a young woman, ‘Sara’ , shared their experiences outside an abortion clinic. They were assisted by support workers and shared their deep gratitude for the help they were given and explained that they were not harassed or intimidated. In fact, there is no evidence of women being harassed outside abortion clinics in NSW.
These and the stories of more and more people who have been helped outside clinics and whom Abortion Rethink has had the privilege of meeting over the past three months, have shown how damaging this bill would be. By criminalising offers of support, it would deny some women a choice to continue a pregnancy who would otherwise feel they have no option but abortion. It would suppress freedom of speech and freedom of assembly for NSW citizens and would effectively result in the state harassing citizens, bringing the constitutionality of the bill into question.
NSW already has sufficient laws on harassment, obstruction or unlawful assembly that cover any unlawful incidents that may occur within the vicinity of an abortion clinic. The more this bill was discussed with NSW parliamentarians, the more it became apparent this bill was a law and order issue and the main question to be answered was – are these extreme measures needed or justified?
Yet Another Bill
In September, Penny Sharpe decided to have the bill redrafted, apparently in response to these and perhaps other serious concerns about the bill. The newly drafted bill is yet to be introduced to the Parliament.
At this stage it is unknown what will happen with the Exclusion Zones bill in 2018 but one thing is for certain – NSW will be ready for it if it is reintroduced. The cooperation of many organisations and individuals to work together against abortion bills in QLD and now NSW has been very successful and is now established. As NSW MLC Greg Donnolly said of Abortion Rethink, ” You do have the ear of politicians in this Parliament and might I say in other Parliaments around Australia”. Abortion Rethink is ready: with many more stories and concerns to share.
The image above shows Huma and Ali sharing their story at NSW Parliament House.
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