Women’s Safe Access to Reproductive Healthcare

17 / 04 / 2014

In 2008, abortion was removed from the Crimes Act in Victoria. It was a hugely significant step, after decades long campaigning and not-so-distant memories of the backyard abortion industry. 

However women attending clinics, including the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic, are often harassed by anti-abortion group protestors when accessing services.  The Human Rights Law Centre, with support from Maurice Blackburn, recently launched legal action to try and remedy this distressing situation. In this piece for Sheilas, the HRLC’s Rachel Ball provides us with a rundown of the case and how the work of the HLRC has wider ramifications in securing women’s safe access to reproductive health care.

By Rachel Ball

For more than two decades the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic has been beset by members of the anti-abortion group, Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, who harass and intimidate patients and staff, and regularly try to stop people accessing the clinic.

Charlotte (not her real name), who attended the clinic in 2013, said she was intimidated and distressed after being rushed by a group of strangers telling her she was a murderer, that she was going to hell and that she was a whore.

Other patients and supporters have told of similar experiences; being called a murderer; being intimidated; having photos taken; having graphic posters of bloodied foetuses shoved in their face and being blocked from entering the clinic.

The harassment causes deep distress to patients at a very personal and sensitive time. It also affects clinic staff and passers-by.

Despite having obligations to address offensive public nuisances, the Melbourne City Council has failed to stop the harassment and intimidation.

Last month, the clinic, with legal support from Maurice Blackburn and the Human Rights Law Centre, launched Supreme Court actionagainst the council over its failure to ensure safe access to the clinic. The action seeks to compel the council to enforce existing laws to protect the clinic’s patients and staff from harassment.

In response to the action, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle acknowledged the harassment “is appalling behaviour” but said the council has been “impotent” to act on it.

The legal case will argue that the council clearly has the power to act as the self-described “sidewalk counsellors” meet the definition of nuisance in Victoria’s Public Health and Wellbeing Act. Under the legislation, the council has a duty to address nuisance issues within its borders.

The legal action is part of broader work by the Human Rights Law Centre to secure safe access to reproductive healthcare in Australia. Last year, the HRLC provided support to Tasmanian women’s rights advocates and briefed a Tasmanian Parliamentary Inquiry on legislation to establish Australia’s first safe access zones around abortion clinics. The legislation passed last year.

The HRLC strongly believes that tailored and proportionate access zones are consistent with human rights principles, including freedom of expression. They protect women’s rights to non-discrimination, privacy and health.

The HRLC is currently raising funds to continue this important legal support and advocacy work. We want access zones to be established around Australia and we’d like to undertake broader advocacy and legal work to ensure safe access to reproductive health services, collaborating with other advocates across the country.

With less than 15% of our funding coming from government, the HRLC relies heavily on private donations to undertake this work. Donations are tax deductible and can be made here: https://hrlrc.worldsecuresystems.com/donate

Rachel Ball, Director of Advocacy & Campaigns

*photo outside clinic by Mario Borg