Ms Patten (Northern Metropolitan) — I am very happy to get a chance to speak on the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Safe Access Zones) Bill 2015. It has been a great privilege to listen to all of the other speakers whatever their views have been, and I do respect those views. I would just like to acknowledge Mr Ramsay’s last point that this is not and should not be a debate about abortion. Some of the speakers have tried to make it about that, but it is not. This bill is about creating safe access zones so that women and the staff who work in clinics that provide abortions are not harassed, are not shamed and are not coerced in any way while they seek a legal medical service or while they provide that legal medical service.
I will not go into the bill. We are all well aware of what the bill does and how it proposes to do that. Obviously I am very supportive of the bill and the way it has been drafted. I would like to make a quick note on Mr Dalla-Riva’s and Mr Ramsay’s foreshadowed amendments. I believe the 150-metre mark is the appropriate mark. When you consider that some of these protesters are chasing women down the street, running out and trying to find where they have parked and attacking them when they are parking or attacking them when they try to go back to their cars, I think we need 150-metre zones. I do not think 15 metres is adequate, and I do not think 50 metres is either.
I also believe that constitutionally we have struck the right balance. I think this would stand up in a High Court challenge. The right of people to access medical services freely is what this bill is about. It is what the intentions and the objectives of this bill are about, and I think they would be supported in any challenge. The information I have seen also leads me to believe that that would be the case.
I am pleased to be up here talking about this legislation in its new form as the Public Health and Wellbeing (Safe Access Zones) Bill 2015. I think it is something that I have been campaigning for probably subconsciously since I was a teenager. I myself had to go for an abortion, and my mother was probably more traumatised than I was. But the real reason for this bill is the decades of harassment — harassment of the women and their supporters accessing these clinics, of the residents who live around these clinics, of the people who work in these clinics.
Ms Bath, Ms Crozier and Ms Fitzherbert very eloquently described some of the behaviours that have taken place, some of those completely unacceptable and unreasonable behaviours that have been taking place around these clinics while people try to impose their views on other people. As Ms Crozier said very strongly, let us remember that we have the right to access health facilities with freedom and without harassment, and that is what this bill intends to ensure.
Up until now we have taken a piecemeal approach to how we try to protect access to these clinics and these medical services. The police have reported to me, as they also reported to Ms Wooldridge, that the tools they have now do not equip them to adequately protect women, their supporters, nearby residents and the staff of clinics from being able to go about their work or gaining access without being harassed and intimidated, and many times just shamed. I think the recent Supreme Court decision also shows that there are not adequate protections in place. The move-on laws were raised with me today. The move-on laws were never used. The police did not find them to be an adequate tool to stop the type of unreasonable and unacceptable behaviour that has been going on.
The passing of this bill will sort of finish up business from 2008 when the Victorian Law Reform Commission raised this as an important issue. As Mr Ondarchie said, at that time the commission was concerned about the type of harassment that was going on at the women’s hospital and, as I said, not just of people seeking abortions but of people seeking many other services, as is happening today. The Victorian Law Reform Commission noted that in its report when recommending law reform and said:
There is understandable community concern about safety and wellbeing of staff and patients at the hospitals and clinics where people protest or stage vigils because of their views about abortion. The commission encourages the Attorney-General to consider options for a legislative response to this issue.
That is what we are doing tonight. Tasmania did it, and I think it has successfully protected the wellbeing of women who seek abortions in Tasmania.
This is a targeted approach and is very specific. It is not trying to stop free speech. I think this legislation finds a very good balance between the freedom of the individual to be able to go about their business, particularly seeking a health service, with privacy, with confidence and without being harassed, belittled or intimidated by somebody else.
Many of us in this chamber will have received many emails about this. I have to say I have found some of them fairly intimidating. Many of them were quite threatening. I would not say that they frightened me, but they were very attacking. But what really got me about most of these emails was that they were saying, ‘We need to save these poor women accessing these clinics. They don’t know what they’re doing. They need our guidance so we can put them on the right path’. Women do not need some unqualified counsellor’s guidance when making a decision about their own reproductive rights. What they need is support, assistance and privacy in what is generally a very difficult time in their lives.
This is not the time for well-meaning people to tell these women how wrong they are in their decisions and how right the position of these other people on abortion is, creating a sense of shame, a sense of stigma and sometimes a sense of fear. These can sometimes be quite intimidatory practices, but even when they are polite, they are still intimidating and still frightening. It is still inappropriate to be saying that a woman going into that clinic has not made that decision on her own grounds and should be counselled by an unqualified stranger. It is completely unacceptable.
I will refer to the research mentioned by Dr Carling-Jenkins in a minute, but in the research done by Alison Humphries published in a study titled Stigma, Secrecy and Anxiety in Women Attending for an Early Abortion, women were asked to indicate how much they believed having an abortion was stigmatised by various selected options. The greatest amount of perceived stigma related to having an abortion came from the presence of picketers or protesters. Women felt the least stigmatisation from friends and family and people who, while possibly not agreeing with their decision, respected their decision, unlike the picketers and protesters. Four out of five patients reported that they felt traumatised by the behaviour of the individuals outside the clinic.
There was a recent study by Aston University in the UK published in a report titled A Hard Enough Decision to Make — Anti-Abortion Activism Outside Clinics in the Eyes of Clinic Users. It also found that the presence of anti-abortion activists was the central cause of distress for clinic users and that:
… numerous clinic users considered anti-abortion actions outside clinics to be intrusive, and emotionally onerous, even where the conduct of the activists was in itself polite, and did not feature graphic imagery.
We are not talking about the most extreme behaviour; we are talking about what some people might call the kerbside counselling that goes on on a daily basis.
Dr Carling-Jenkins mentioned Professor Priscilla Coleman’s study. I would like to note that Professor Coleman’s results on abortion and mental health and the connection between the two were not supported by the American Psychological Association or the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, nor by other people. They said the evidence does not support a link between abortion and mental health problems.
Respectful protest or prayer is not helpful. It is unwanted. It makes women feel ashamed about their decisions. Our society should not allow that or endorse it by failing to support this bill. Even one of the people who wrote asking me to oppose the bill stated:
I believe this would prevent even the respectful communication of information about alternatives to abortion, as abortion is such a contentious issue that, even when presented with respect and sensitivity, communication about it may be reasonably likely to cause distress or anxiety.
She is absolutely right: it does cause distress and anxiety. This is when people are going through a very anxious time. I do not want to go on, given the time.
Many of the emails that we have received and many of the contributions made here this evening have mentioned the right to free speech, and many of the contributions have also acknowledged, quite rightly, that the right to free speech is not absolute and it certainly does not give you a right to an audience — and a captive one. Mr Ramsay captured the thrust of this issue well in the previous debate around this issue when he said:
This debate is not about freedom of speech; it is about people who are trying to intimidate and change the views of people seeking medical help.
In her contribution today Ms Shing eloquently outlined how this bill finds the balance between freedom of speech and freedom from being harassed.
I welcome protest, and I welcome the protesters that we see here every day. In fact I welcome them to come to my office, because that is the appropriate place to protest around legislation. I would like to thank the individuals who protest behind Parliament House every sitting week. They are dedicated, they believe in what they are saying, and while I do not agree with the message, I would totally say that it is the right place for them to protest. I thank Des Kelly and his followers, because their commitment to their cause is clear and undoubted. I disagree with it, but Parliament is exactly the right place to express it and to advocate those views. I look forward to further lobbying from and interactions with Mr Kelly and his like. It is what we do as politicians, and it is what we should be doing.
In finishing, I would like to thank a few people who have been part of the passage of this legislation. The passage of this legislation has been going on for a long time — decades in fact. I very much appreciate the support of the government, Premier Andrews and in particular the Minister for Health for taking this on; Susie Allanson at the Fertility Control Clinic; Emily Howie and the Human Rights Law Centre; Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, particularly Katie Robertson, Elizabeth O’Shea and Jacob Varghese; all of the health groups, legal groups, volunteer groups and women’s rights groups — Marie Stopes International, Family Planning Victoria, Women’s Health West, Women’s Health Victoria, Right to Choose; the Public Health Association of Australia; the Australian Medical Association; Trades Hall; the universities and hospitals; everyone who came to support this legislation; and all the members in this house who have supported it.
It has been wonderful. As Ms Hartland and Ms Springle mentioned, I never expected this kind of collaborative approach in this house.
Mr Ondarchie interjected.
Ms Patten — Yes, Mr Ondarchie — you were surprised as well. I never expected that that would be how some legislation works — that it is done through collaboration, through finding that common ground. I thank in particular Ms Wooldridge, Ms Symes, Ms Crozier, Ms Hartland, Ms Springle, Ms Fitzherbert and Ms Lovell for really showing me that we could do this. I do not want to forget Ms Mikakos and Ms Pulford, who also played a strong role in that incredible collaborative approach. I thank the 69 members of the lower house who voted for this bill — from Ms Allan to Mr Wynne. It is with great pleasure and immense gratitude that I support and commend this bill. White Ribbon Week is a fitting week to be passing a bill that works towards ending this kind of intimidation and violence against women.
Finally, I want to say that I know my mother, who obviously is not alive now but who was so traumatised by that time she had to go to that abortion clinic with me, would be so pleased to see this legislation debated in the house today. I commend the bill to the house.