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According to merit?/Diversity: Rights of women upheld

Every Issue

Cite as: March 2016 90 (03) LIJ, p.78

Amendments to the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 correct a decades-old injustice.

Late last year the Victorian parliament passed a law aimed at protecting the rights of women to access abortion clinics by restricting the activities of pro-life advocates. The amendments to the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 establish a safe access zone of 150 metres around places that provide abortions. Within this zone, people must not engage in “prohibited behaviour” including harassing, intimidating or recording people.

The amendments follow a failed action brought by the East Melbourne Fertility Clinic last year against Melbourne City Council. The clinic had attracted protestors who brandished plastic dolls and abused patients and staff. In 2001, an anti-abortion activist shot and killed a security guard who worked there. The clinic submitted to the Victorian Supreme Court that the protesters’ actions constituted a nuisance under the Act, and the council had failed to exercise its statutory duty to take remedial action. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the council had exercised jurisdiction by assessing the protestors’ conduct and concluding that it constituted a private rather than public nuisance.

Following the judgment, the council acknowledged that it took no pleasure in the result and that it did not have the power to take more forceful action. The council released a statement that “[a]lthough we respect people’s right to a peaceful protest, we consider that the groups who assemble at the clinic show little respect for the rights of women who attend it. Despite what the group might say, we have no doubt the gatherings at the clinic intimidate women at what is a vulnerable time in their lives”.

A few days before the Supreme Court ruling in that case, the Safe Access Zone Bill was introduced by Fiona Patten MP from the Sex Party. In her speech to the Victorian parliament, Ms Patten said: “We as a society should not tolerate this type of intrusive interference. It violates women’s sense of safety. It violates her privacy and in such a way that would not be tolerated in any other circumstance”. She said that the problem had existed for decades.

The amendments will come into effect on 1 July 2016. If the provisions are breached, a person may face criminal sanctions of a fine up to $18,000 or a prison term up to 12 months.

Victorian Women Lawyers is pleased to see that a simple and hopefully effective legal solution has been reached to protect the rights of women seeking to access health services.

Caroline Jones is an executive committee member of Victorian Women Lawyers.


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