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Speech: The Right to Safely Access Abortions

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 30 Nov 2015

On Saturday, 28 November, Robert Dear shot dead three people at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in the United States. It was an act of terrorism, informed by an ideology that is deeply rooted in patriarchy. 

My colleague in the New South Wales parliament Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi has introduced the Abortion Law Reform (Miscellaneous Acts Amendment) Bill 2015. It will repeal sections 82 to 84 of the New South Wales Crimes Act and would require doctors to disclose if they have a conscientious objection to abortion and refer the patient to their local New South Wales women's health centre. Importantly, the bill will also provide a 50 metre exclusion zone around abortion clinics to ensure women and staff are free from harassment and intimidation. This bill urgently needs to pass.

On Saturday, 28 November, Robert Dear shot dead three people at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in the United States. Planned Parenthood is a non-profit organisation which provides reproductive health services and education. Vicki Cowart, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains, said the shooting was:

… an appalling act of violence targeting access to health care and terrorizing skilled and dedicated health care professionals.

She also said:

… eyewitnesses confirm that the man who will be charged with the tragic and senseless shooting … was motivated by opposition to safe and legal abortion.

Some have refused to describe the murders as the actions of an extremist. One Republican presidential candidate insists on describing the murderer as a 'protester'. It was an act of terrorism. These killers are not without motivation, politics or ideology. They are routinely produced by, and respond to, a deeply entrenched culture of patriarchy. Their actions are acts of patriarchal violence, motivated by a desire to control women and their bodies. Antichoice movements, which dedicate themselves to crusading against those providing and accessing reproductive health services, enable and incite acts of aggression and violence against women. Their violent antichoice rhetoric cultivates violent actions, which, in this instance, has moved a man to kill three people and wound nine.

To our great advantage, we do not have the same lax gun laws that the US does. But some members of our community, some groups and some politicians, do have the same commitment to campaigning against reproductive rights. And, to the surprise of many, abortion law in some states in Australia is still antiquated.

For decades, anti-abortion protesters have harassed, intimidated and abused patients and staff outside clinics offering abortions. These protester heckle, threaten, follow and intimidate people walking into these clinics. Some anti-abortionists have followed women when they leave the clinics, yelling out to passers-by that the woman has had an abortion, and making intimidating remarks. Some film the women and post the films online. At times they have obstructed people from accessing the clinics. They carry signs with graphic images and violent words. Some have physically struck women.

In 2001, Steve Rogers, a clinic security guard and father of seven, was murdered by Peter Knight. Knight started by demonstrating outside the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic against the promotion of abortion. Then, in July 2001, he went to the clinic with two bags. One contained a variety of potential weapons, including 16 litres of kerosene, rounds of ammunition, cigarette lighters, torches that could be soaked in kerosene, ropes and gags. The second bag hid the high-powered Winchester rifle he had modified. The court heard evidence that Knight was ready to massacre the 15 staff and 26 patients, all of whom he insisted were part of the abortion racket. When security guard Steve Rogers moved towards Knight, Knight shot him. He then aimed at Lilian Kitanov, but was disarmed by her boyfriend and a second man. Dr G. Davidson Smith, who is a counter-terrorism specialist with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, has described such acts as 'single issue terrorism'.

Individuals and groups opposed to abortion are entitled to protest. But they should not be at the clinic doors, attempting to bully women out of seeking a legitimate medical procedure via incessant abuse. Women seeking access to an abortion, or to other reproductive health services, should not be subject to their verbal and psychological abuse. The protesters should not be in the immediate vicinity of these patients.

Some of these women feel vulnerable and nervous; some do not. It is not necessarily a difficult decision for every person, though for many it is. But it should be a safe one for every person.

Last week, a safe access zone bill passed the Victorian upper house. From now on, there will be 150 metre exclusion zones around Victorian health services providing abortions. I hope that one day that is the case across Australia. New South Wales certainly needs to follow suit.

At the moment in New South Wales, abortion is still covered by the Crimes Act. Sections 82, 83 and 84 of the Crimes Act criminalise abortions. Women can have abortions in New South Wales, based on a common law interpretation of the Crimes Act. Abortions are considered 'lawful' if a doctor determines that the procedure is necessary for their patient to avoid serious mental and physical danger—that is the only way to have an abortion in New South Wales, because it is still under the Crimes Act. People accessing abortions and other reproductive health services should be afforded dignity, medical privacy and safety under the law. The Crimes Act should have no role in this medical procedure.

My colleague in the New South Wales parliament Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi has introduced the Abortion Law Reform (Miscellaneous Acts Amendment) Bill 2015. It will repeal sections 82 to 84 of the New South Wales Crimes Act and would require doctors to disclose if they have a conscientious objection to abortion and refer the patient to their local New South Wales women's health centre. Importantly, the bill will also provide a 50 metre exclusion zone around abortion clinics to ensure women and staff are free from harassment and intimidation. This bill urgently needs to pass.

Near Central Station in Sydney, one can regularly see these people intimidating people who are accessing abortion or just inquiring about it. In 2015, this should not happen.

The changes set out in Dr Mehreen Faruqi's bill will make a meaningful difference to women in New South Wales. It will also challenge the culture of patriarchy which contributed to this latest act of gendered terrorism at Colorado Springs. I extend my condolences to the families of those who were killed and to those who are recovering.

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