Between pro-life and death: the fight for Safe Access Zones
There is a war on Devonshire Street
The Private Clinic on Devonshire Street has for the past 18 years provided a wide range of reproductive healthcare services: insertion and removal of IUDs, D&C for incomplete miscarriage, contraceptive advice, vasectomies, and, most controversially, termination of pregnancies.
For almost as long as the clinic has existed, it has been protested. Currently, the role is occupied by a group of volunteers who refer to themselves as Helpers of God’s Precious Infants—Helpers, for short.
Helpers hold vigils. Every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, they line the footpath across the road from the clinic and pray. Like clockwork, from 8:30am to 10:30am, they clutch rosary beads and sing for the perceived suffering of aborted foetuses.
While this impression of peaceful uprising, of united outdoor assembly, is the image often showcased in media, the clinic’s practice manager, Paul Nattrass, informs me the real protest does not end, nor start, with these vigils.
In reality, much of what the Helpers do is act as ‘sidewalk counsellors’. “These are people that scatter themselves away from the clinic, approaching and intercepting anyone who looks fearful,” says Nattrass.
“When approached by a sidewalk counselor, patients are caught off guard and don’t realise who these people are. So one moment they are exchanging pleasantries, and the next they are horrified to find themselves defending […] reasons for having an abortion.”
The title of sidewalk counselor is leading, given most Helpers are not registered medical professionals, and so, unlike psychologists or GPs, are not legally bound to provide impartial, evidence-based advice on abortion. Confident about their religious beliefs, sidewalk counselors assume they know what is best for pregnant women, and that best is, without exception, to not have an abortion. With this fixed purpose, their ‘counselling’ ranges from scaremongering—propagating dispelled myths of abortion causing breast cancer, infertility, and mental illness, for example—to tactics intended to outright guilt women into carrying out their full term by showing graphic photos of five to six month old aborted foetuses, and talking about life with the ‘baby’. If a patient tries to push free and escape to the clinic, sidewalk counselors will follow, all the way to the entrance, all the while begging her to not have an abortion.
Nattrass says patients are targeted even after discharge. “I’ve heard a protestor offering a pamphlet to a patient on the way home, saying, “take this … Maybe you can save someone else’s baby!”
Madeline Ward, co-Women’s Officer at the University of Sydney, is the administrator of a non-autonomous Facebook group for people who wish to volunteer escorting women into the clinic. When protesters are present, one or two volunteers usually wait inside the clinic entrance to reassure women, and intervene when sidewalk counselors try to lure patients into a conversation.
Ward believes the volunteer escort service is crucial, especially in face of what she sees as increasingly terrorising measures. “At a protest there are signs, there are speakers. It’s a strategic move because you want to show there’s a visible support or visible dissent for something. Whereas what they do outside clinics is not a protest. They […] try and corner people into not going, pull them away from the clinic, directly target people. It’s harassment.”
Nattrass shares this view. Based on his experience, when protests are not taking place, women arrive at the clinic composed and exhibit no signs of visible distress. But as soon as protesters arrive, the situation changes.
“There are many women [who become] emotionally shattered… Women are frequently trembling or breaking down in tears as they approach the reception desk.”
While the clinic offers emotional support for patients affected by protesters, there is no on-site counsellor responsible for handling this unique protest-induced affliction. Ward says a patient may become so distressed that they reschedule their abortion. Not only does this delay the process, but it means another confrontation with protesters awaits in the near future.
According to Nattrass, Ward’s volunteer service has helped alleviate the stress women experience as they walk past protestors to enter the clinic. But it can only do so much—the broader issue of protest and its entanglement with harassment and intimidation on Devonshire Street relentlessly persists.
What, then, is the answer?
Safe access zones, also referred to as “buffer zones”, are a 150 metre “bubble” around clinics that provide abortion services. Within this bubble anti-abortion protesting is disallowed, subject to minor exceptions, such as leafleting during federal election campaigns. If a person is caught protesting in a safe access zone, they risk receiving a fine or up to 12 months in jail.
Ward and Nattrass are among many people in support of safe access zones, saying they are necessary for the mental and physical wellbeing of patients and staff. At present, Tasmania, ACT, and Victoria are the only states that have successfully introduced safe access zones. In NSW, the fight for safe access has a long and troubled history.
Last year, Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi introduced to NSW Parliament a bill calling for the decriminalisation of abortion and implementation of 150 metre safe access zones. The bill failed spectacularly. 14 votes in favour; 25 against. This year, Labor MLC Penny Sharpe is trying again, but with a bill entirely focused on safe access zone: the Public Health Amendment (Safe Access to Reproductive Health Clinics) Bill 2018.
“Safe access zones [are] a very separate issue from abortion,” Sharpe tells Honi. “It’s about the ability of women to get lawful medical treatment without the interference of others. There is a difference.” (In NSW, abortion is technically unlawful, but common law authority allows a woman to have an abortion if there is a necessary economic, social, or medical reason, as determined by her doctor.) Labor’s support this time round relies on the separation of the two issues, as the full legalisation of abortion would mandate a conscience vote.
What’s hopeful about Sharpe’s bill is her enlistment of cross party support. Co-sponsoring the bill is Nationals member, MLC Trevor Khan, who was one of the 25 politicians that voted against Faruqi’s bill last year. When I asked Sharpe if it was difficult to procure Khan’s support, she says it was not, emphasising people feel differently about safe access than they do about decriminalising abortion.
“What became clear to me is we need to [introduce safe access] across parliament. So I spent a lot of time talking to people, and… [there are some] personally very opposed to abortion that don’t think [protesting outside abortion clinics] is right. When you talk to Trevor about it, he just says, ‘I think of the women in my life […] and why wouldn’t we be giving them the privacy and dignity that they need?’’
“This is not a left or right issue,” Sharpe emphasises, then goes on to admit, “We tried to get a Liberal on board, too, but that hasn’t been possible, which is disappointing, but you know, these things happen. Privately, there is a lot of support [for the bill] from the Conservative side of politics.”
In every single state where safe access has been introduced, it has been passed by a Labor government. Successfully passing the bill from the opposition will be an unprecedented feat, but one Sharpe remains “cautiously optimistic” about.
While the ramifications of safe access legislation on patients and staff working in abortion clinics is obvious, what is still obfuscated is the effect these changes would have on pro-life protesters, who have organised not only their time, but their entire livelihoods around the debate.
Paul Hanrahan, director of Family Life International Australia, “came back” to his Catholic faith when his mother passed away. Speaking to community organiser and pro-life activist, Robert Colquhoun, in 2014, Hanrahan says his mother’s prayers led him back to the religion, and inspired him to change “his whole life”. Hanrahan did not agree to be interviewed for this article; all recollection and quotes are drawn from the 2014 Colquhoun interview and other publicly available material.
In 1994, Hanrahan was recruited for his first apologetics talk—a Catholic practice where a believer talks, or sermons, to a non-believer to try and evangelise them. He frames the talk as a formative moment in his life, from then on, Hanrahan was regularly involved in organising ongoing pro-life vigils. He became well associated with Human Life International (HLI), a US-based anti-abortion organisation that has offices all across the world, including the ‘English Speaking’ region of Africa. There HLI argues against contraceptives, despite high birth rates coupled with large-scale poverty.
In 1995, and 1996, Hanrahan’s participation in pro-life activism accelerated with a training visit from Monsignor Philip Reilly. Reilly was the founder of the first branch of Helper’s of God’s Precious Infants, started in 1991 in Brooklyn, New York, during the ‘pro-life war.’ By “bringing God back into” the debate through sidewalk counselling’s first iteration, ‘salvific intervention’ and ‘prayerful peaceful witness’, Reilly became an icon and trendsetter.
He believed, without the support of God, the abortion-ravaged culture of modern society could never be defeated. Under his guidance, the Helper’s of God’s Precious Infants grew to have chapters in 45 American states, as well as 35 foreign countries. Under Reilly’s instruction and personal mentorship, the Sydney branch was started by Hanrahan, and continues to be run by him many years later.
Pro-choice activists who come into conflict with pro-life protesters often emphasise that they are not a random, uncollected group of people. “People who are standing out front are very practiced,” Sharpe says. “They have a lot of links to the US.” These links, however, are hard to find unless you’re looking for it, and even then, answers are not guaranteed. When I asked We Support Women, a group of sidewalk counselors who monitor the Westmead abortion clinic, about their US affiliations, I was met with radio silence.
On Family Life International’s website, they state Hanrahan organises meetings with police and local council officials, often with the presence of a lawyer, when training new Helpers. This is practice reflective of an organisation that knows how to manipulate the law.
Nattrass claims the Helpers in Sydney are thorough. They are known to always submit a “Form 1 – Notice of Intention to Hold a Public Assembly, which legally registers the protest outside the clinic. All police can do if they receive a call is issue a “move on order”, which is often followed by protesters lodging a formal complaint to the station commander, the Police Minister, or the Ombudsman where necessary. If the person who issued the complaint, most often a patient of the clinic, is unable to produce a timely victim statement, they are reprimanded, and as Nattrass emphasises, “sometimes even forced to issue an apology to the protester”.
Sharpe says, “[The protesters] are pushing the laws to the limit in relation to what they can get away with.” When considering a statement Hanrahan made in reference to the passing of ‘pro-choice laws’ in Tasmania, “I think it speaks to the principle that if you don’t exercise your rights, they will be taken from you,” it is hard not to think Sharpe is correct.
In an interview with The Saturday Paper, Hanrahan claims to have saved 10, 000 lives. In the same breath, he denies using any intimidation or harassment tactics. While I do not discount Hanrahan’s claim, it does not add up to testimony of Nattrass, who tells me “the protests do not stop women from coming to the clinic—our no show rates are the same.”
Language is, of course, the great divider in this debate. In Penny and Trevor’s world, this is a debate about medical privacy. In Hanrahan’s world, the 2001 murder of an East Melbourne clinic security guard is referred to as a ‘crusade’. For the Helpers, abortion is “satanic”, reproductive health clinics are “abortion mills” and termination of pregnancies are “operations of killing”. In their view, the world has forsaken God, and they are the last bastions of a marriage and family institution facing upheaval. It is a pseudo-reality manufactured by very artful people using extremely craftful language. It is difficult to argue in secular terms with an opposition who exists on a perceived higher spiritual plane. The apocalyptic-themed polemics stall the debate, making it, fatalistically, about life or death.
Language also carves out the most vulnerable. Ward tells me people from migrant backgrounds, who do not have English as their first language, are disproportionately targeted by pro-life protesters. “They are able to more easily overwhelm them,” Ward says, “They offer visas, lawyers, what they think migrants want, just so they keep the baby.”
Last year, this very paper suggested the pro-life/pro-choice debate will not resolve unless each side engages in meaningful dialogue with the other. I respectfully disagree. As Ward says, “I try to get them to understand being anti-abortion is more hurtful than abortion but often they fail to listen.” If we are to effect greater change around abortion anytime soon, then we are reaching our discursive limits, and we are reaching them rapidly.
If the bill goes through the NSW Legislative Council this Thursday, it will within a fortnight move onto the Lower House for a debate and vote. Sharpe hopes the bill will be passed by the Winter Recess, the end of June. Within a month, bill could be law, the Government will assent, and abortion clinics across the state can end a more than 15-year-long conflict by marking a 150m zone on a concrete path. But the broader fight for women’s bodily autonomy in NSW has yet to be resolved, and as long as a pro life apostate exists, it’s unclear if it will.