Police have questioned an elderly man who flouted new laws aimed at stopping protesters from harassing women outside abortion clinics.
The man was spoken to by two police officers after reports he was praying outside the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne about 4pm.
Laws passed last year making it illegal to harass people within 150-metres of abortion providers came into effect on Monday.
For the first time in 25 years, the group of anti-abortion protesters who have picketed the Wellington Parade abortion clinic six days a week were absent and women were able to enter the building without first being forced to run the gauntlet.
“Usually we have patients coming in who are crying, we may have partners who are angry, we might have children who are upset,” clinical psychologist Susie Allanson said on Monday. “Today has been delightfully uneventful.”
But shortly after speaking to The Age, police were called to the clinic after reports a man was praying outside. A Victoria Police spokesman said officers explained the new legislation to the man and that he left voluntarily.
The man, believed to be a founding member of the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, spoke to police for about half an hour.
DrAllanson has previously reported that protesters from the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants have followed, threatened and intimidated women and their partners outside the clinic. She said the group, who carry pamphlets and graphic images of dismembered fetuses, had also in the past verbally abused, stalked and intimidated her staff.
In 2001, the centre’s security guard Steven Rogers was shot dead by a pro-life protester.
A bill introduced by Sex Party MP Fiona Patten last year made it illegal for anti-abortion protesters to harass or film people coming or going from abortion clinics, with heavy penalties for those who break the law.
“I went to the clinic today and was very pleasantly surprised that people were adhering to the new regulations,” Ms Patten said. “I saw patients accessing and exiting the clinic freely and without being morally judged by protesters. It’s very pleasing to see the law working and that finally the rights of the patients will be respected.”
Ms Patten said she and a handful of pro-choice supporters would stand alongside the ant-abortion group on Tuesday morning, where they recently started protesting on sitting days, to support their right to protest. “If you want to change the abortion laws in this state the place you campaign for that is at the Parliament House,” she said.
In a statement, the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants said its members were peaceful and that the new law imposed “draconian fines and possible jail term for merely being present or offering a pamphlet to those who wish to receive it”.
“It must be the first law of its kind in Victoria to criminalise peaceful activities”, the group’s spokeswoman, Tanya O’Brien, said.
“It is arrogant for the Victorian Parliament to join with the abortion industry in passing an unconstitutional law to deny pregnant women any knowledge of the type of assistance that is available to them from the Helpers.”
The group, which also maintains a presence at clinics in Carlton, Richmond and St Alban, said it aimed to expand its activities in the future.
Health Minister Jill Hennessy said last year that women accessing legal abortions had had their privacy invaded and been subjected to verbal and psychological abuse for too long.
“This abuse has included yelling, holding up images of fetuses, physical intimidation and, on occasions, violence,” Ms Hennessy said. “This abuse is designed to humiliate and shame women who are accessing a legal and legitimate medical procedure.”