Abortion clinic safe zones months away in WA as Government criticised for lagging behind

Updated March 26, 2019 12:56:09

As Jessica Williams exited a Perth abortion clinic, teary and in pain, she remembers being called a “murderer” by pro-life protesters waiting outside.

Key points:

  • Women seeking abortions say they face abuse from protesters outside clinics
  • 40 Days for Life says its members abide by their permit conditions
  • Critics say the WA Government must quickly implement safe access zones

The 36-year-old mother said she and her husband were confident they had made the right decision to terminate their pregnancy in 2013, but she still felt heavy with emotion.

“Sadness, grief, loss, confusion, doubt, hatred for myself,” Ms Williams said.

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“Carrying all of those emotions in [to the clinic] and then being confronted with people that are calling you a murderer [and] grown men calling out to you to not kill your baby, is extremely traumatic.

“I was in tears and I was in pain and still slightly physically ill from the medicines that are used during the procedures and that is when they chose to verbally attack me by yelling things like ‘whore’ and ‘murderer’.

“When you are already making a decision that can carry with it a lot of grief and mental, physical and emotional trauma, it can be very overwhelming and can have really disastrous consequences.”

The West Australian Labor Government has expressed support for safe access zones — which exist in most other Australian states and act as a buffer to move protesters away from the immediate vicinity of clinics.

Ms Williams said a safe zone would have made “a world of difference” to her experience at the Nanyara abortion clinic in Rivervale.

“It would have been like going to your dentist or going to your GP, like any other normal medical appointment,” she said.

“I think it is very important to note that with safe access zones we are not impeding on their right to protest. They can still protest, they do not need to be right outside the clinic in order to express that right.”

Concerns WA is lagging behind

But safe zones could still be some months away, with the WA Government waiting on the outcome of a High Court challenge on safe access zone laws in Victoria and Tasmania.

After the High Court decision, the Government will release a discussion paper and seek public feedback.

Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer Adrianne Walters said WA was lagging behind.

“It is disappointing that it has taken two years for the Government to get to the point in time where it is talking about a discussion paper without even releasing it [until after the High Court outcome],” she said.

“During that time we have seen Queensland introduce safe access zones, we’ve seen New South Wales introduce safe access zones, we’ve seen them introduced in the Northern Territory.

“It is really disappointing that Western Australia is lagging behind so much and that women seeking healthcare are being exposed to harassment and intimidation when they are trying to access healthcare.”

It’s a peaceful vigil: protesters

Religious organisation 40 Days for Life has a permit to hold a prayer vigil outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Midland and the Nanyara clinic in Rivervale between 7:00am and 5:00pm for the 40 days of Lent — between March 6 and April 14.

The head nurse at the Midland Marie Stopes clinic, Leigh Keane, claimed a protestor recently struck up a conversation with a patient and found out where she worked before calling her employer to tell them she was at an abortion clinic having a procedure.

She also claimed two protesters recently entered the clinic and posed as patients — an incident which was then reported to police and is now under investigation.

40 Days for Life spokesman Steve Klomp strongly denied the group had breached its permit in any way and said Ms Keane’s claims were “without foundation”.

“We are very careful that we follow our permit,” he said.

“I am not sure about the incident they are referring to but of course there are lots of groups and individuals who are concerned about protecting the unborn, but [it] was certainly not one of our group.

“I don’t think we can say that it happened, and I certainly think we can say that [if it did] it was not somebody associated with 40 Days for Life.

“It is a peaceful, prayerful vigil and we are a very law-abiding, very peaceful people.”

Mr Klomp said the group would never verbally abuse a patient or staff member, and said his heart went out to Ms Williams for her “terrible” experience.

“I would condemn that sort of behaviour,” he said.

Minister angry at harassment

Ms Keane said staff and patients had been harassed and intimidated by protesters for years.

“Before the current Government came into power [Health Minister] Roger Cook was here asking about safe access zones and we have had promises and promises,” Ms Keane said.

“We were under the impression that we wouldn’t still be in this position today and that last year would have been our last 40 Days for Life protest during the period of Lent.

“It is very disappointing that it has taken this long to have things just starting, rather than having the end result at this time, after two years.”

Mr Cook, a strong advocate for safe access zones, said he understood why people were frustrated, but it was important to wait for the High Court ruling.

“It is no use us legislating for safe access zones if that law is going to be immediately struck down by the High Court,” he said.

“It makes me angry that people are having to go to a clinic for a health procedure [and] being harassed simply because they have made the decision to go to that clinic.

“We will move as quickly as we can to make sure that these laws are in place.”

Topics: states-and-territories, government-and-politics, abortion, reproduction-and-contraception, health, perth-6000, wa

First posted March 26, 2019 10:05:35

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