Canberra: Abortion clinic safe access zones could be overturned by High Court challenge

Stock image.
Stock image.

STATE laws that set up “safe access zones” outside abortion clinics to prevent people being harassed by protesters will be challenged in the High Court today.

The court’s decision in the case of anti-abortion campaigner Kathleen Clubb is expected to have ramifications not only in the five jurisdictions that have the laws, but Queensland where the state parliament is considering similar laws.

Ms Clubb, a divorced mother of 13, is a member of the US-founded anti-abortion group known as Helpers of God’s Precious Infants.

Last year she was found guilty in Melbourne Magistrates Court of “prohibited behaviour” by handing a pamphlet to a couple on August 4, 2016, outside the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne, within the safe access zone.

The group had been involved in regular protests outside the clinic for more than two decades.

Her challenge to the Victorian laws will be heard in conjunction with a challenge brought by Queenslander John Graham Preston, who was convicted of contravening Tasmania’s safe access zone provisions.

The laws make it an offence to communicate about abortion to people entering or leaving a service in “a way that is reasonably likely to cause distress or anxiety”.

They also make it illegal to film people without their consent or physically block access to a service.

Deputy director of Monash University’s Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Dr Tania Penovic, said the Victorian laws did not breach the constitution.

The safety, dignity and fundamental rights of women are at stake in the High Court matter, she said.

“No woman should be the target of abuse for seeing her doctor, yet this is what anti-abortionists have done for decades,” she told reporters outside the court on Tuesday.

The Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic and Human Rights Law Centre have also argued the laws should be upheld.

The HRLC’s Adrianne Walters said the Victorian laws struck the right balance between freedom of expression and the right of every woman to see her doctor privately and safely.

“Australians do have a right to political communication, but that is certainly not a licence to harm others with impunity,” she told reporters.

Research has shown the safe access zones have significantly reduced aggressive protest methods and been welcomed as a way to help women access clinics safely and with dignity.

Ms Clubb has argued in her submission the laws breach the implied constitutional protection of freedom of political communication.

She also argues the privacy, dignity, physical safety and psychological wellbeing of people accessing abortion clinics are already protected by a wide range of criminal and civil laws.