Anti-abortion protestors are using ‘free speech’ as a smokescreen for harassment

Published by ‘The Spinoff’ July 25th 2018 ~

Yes, anti-abortionists should have the right to protest. No, they shouldn’t be allowed to bully, intimidate or harass people accessing abortion services, writes Amy Pearl.

Anti-abortion protests in New Zealand predominantly occur outside clinics and hospitals. Some protests, or ‘vigils’ as they are named, are only held on the one day of the week abortion clinics are open. Currently in Auckland protests are every Wednesday outside the Auckland Medical Aid Centre. As I write this a rosary procession is being led to pray outside the Wellington Regional Hospital. The protests can intensify into sustained harassment during times such as Lent, when each year the anti-abortion organisation Right to Life holds its ’40 days for life’ campaign. 

I cannot understand why our law, our institutions and our people are so unenthused about protecting the human rights of people seeking reproductive care. Our abortion law is still based in the Crimes Act, but our laws still allow people to seek abortion services, albeit under specific circumstances. So why then are groups permitted to ‘protest’ outside abortion clinics and hound those with legal consent to obtain the health services they are seeking? I use the term ‘protest’ very loosely, because I don’t think what they are doing is really protesting. What I do see them doing is bullying and intimidating those seeking services they are legally entitled to.

To be clear, I’m not arguing against free speech. But free speech and protest can occur at parliament, in the streets, and at venues who’ll have you. Why should we enable intimidation at the doors of clinics? Is this what free speech looks like? I don’t think so. Is facing off with extremely vulnerable people a suitable way for anti-abortion protesters to express their views? No it is not.

We don’t accept this type of intimidation at other places of work or other facilities providing health care, so why do our institutions provide permits to ‘protest’ outside clinics and hospitals which provide reproductive care? Where are the buffer zones around our clinics to protect the rights of our people against a small group of zealots?  A ‘buffer zone’ or a ‘safe access zone’ is an extended area around clinics where anti-abortion protesters are no longer permitted so “women can access the health facilities in privacy and free from intimidating conduct.” In places were safe access zones have been introduced, people in areas outside abortion clinics and hospitals people are now protected by law from harassment, intimidation and obstruction.

In May 2018 in NSW, Australia, a bill to establish safe access zones to abortion clinics passed the state’s parliament. Other states such as Tasmania, the ACTVictoria and the Northern Territory had already established similar laws. The NSW bill passed the legislative assembly in June and now makes it a criminal offence to interfere with the rights of people to access abortion in a safe manner. In the UK buffer zones are now being considered by councils as the number of protests rise.

New Zealand anti-abortion activists often boast of their ‘success’ taking abortion staff out of the workforce and share statistics from affiliates overseas about many abortion clinics they’ve had a hand in closing worldwide. The workers in these clinics are not immune to the protests. Imagine going to work each day and being told by strangers you are going to hell. 

This is both a health and safety and a workplace harassment issue. As far I’m aware, clinics take security and the welfare of their staff seriously. But their hands are tied when it comes to protecting their workers on the pavement and in their car parks. They are not able to protect their patients from psychological stress or further impacts on their health. They are not able to ensure staff morale doesn’t suffer or that staff turnover does not increase due to the presence of protesters. How can clinics ensure the health and safety of their workers, as is their duty, if councils keep handing out permits for protest at their doors? 

We need to stop turning a blind eye to the way that pro-life groups are often allowed to protest – even if we’ve been lucky in New Zealand that some of the more vindictive approaches to clinic protests haven’t been adopted by pro-life groups here. In other nations women and those accompanying them can be splattered with fake blood or have dismembered dolls thrown at them; they can be followed and filmed as they enter clinics. Threats of violence against US abortion clinics almost doubled in 2017. 

Closer to home, the most recent pro-life killing in Australia was in 2001. Security guard Steven Rogers was shot dead by a perpetrator intending to kill all 15 staff and 26 patients by setting a fire. In New Zealand the last major plot to incinerate a clinic was at the Lyndhurst Hospital in Christchurch in 1999. A protester who spent most of his days protesting outside of the gates of this clinic had spent his nights tunnelling beneath the clinic to prime it with explosive material. The judge presiding over the case in 2000 told defendant Graeme White that “you claim to be a pacifist but there is a certain incongruity to that claim.” 

I’ve no doubt one of my feminist heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt, would today be arguing against sanctioned protest outside abortion clinics. Roosevelt was a great proponent for free speech and one of the authors of our most important global human rights documents, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but even she would see the absurdity and cruelty of allowing protest at the places where women access their right to reproductive care. She said “The battle for the individual rights of women is one of long standing and none of us should countenance anything which undermines it.” Many of today’s free speech advocates quote Roosevelt in their arguments – but it’s clear they don’t always understand her actual beliefs. 

This is where the concept of ‘balancing the scales’ comes into play. Golriz Ghahraman, a Green MP with a background in human rights, recently noted that “freedom of speech, like most rights, is not absolute. It’s subject to the rights of others, to safety, freedom, equality.” Universities in the UK are struggling with these new definitions of ‘safe versus free’, as safe spaces on campus are being used to shut debate down. New Zealand doesn’t have to follow their example if we continue to have our own debate around these highly contested concepts. Safe spaces are places where a group of people or an individual won’t be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, physical or emotional harm, and we need those places in society. We also need to define where those places are and whether they should be enforced at all costs. 

New Zealand had this debate as it relates to anti-abortion protest at Auckland University in 2015 when a complaint was made about the anti-abortion group ProLife making students feel harassed. ProLife won the right for their club to stay on campus and I was relieved for that result. Places of learning, by nature, should not be used to prevent the propagation of thought. Could a student body who has a constitutional obligation to support the rights of women remain associated with a pro-life group? That is a different question. 

If there is one institution that should remain open to debate, even open to offensive views, it’s our universities. They should be places where counter narratives can be explored on any topic, no limits, but always accompanied by the rights of the individual and the right of reply. As a feminist, I’m well aware of the lack of safe spaces – but also the way that complaints about ‘hate speech’ can be used to shut down debate.

In 2013 I joined Alison McCulloch as a part of her Pro-Choice Highway tour of New Zealand. She was ‘on the road for reproductive justice’ raising the issue of reproductive rights with public meetings and related events for her new book Fighting To Choose on the history of the struggle for reproductive rights in this country. That morning in the Wairarapa we set up in an alcove off the footpath in front of a shop whose owner had given us permission to be there. It was a productive morning with many unsolicited discussions, especially with women who had had an abortion and wanted to discuss their families’ experience of having been affected by abortion politics.

A representative of the local council arrived and told us we had to leave, “because there had been a complaint.” 

We packed up peacefully and left. There was no breaching of the peace, no offensive behaviour or language. This wasn’t a protest requiring a permit. So where would have been an appropriate place?

We need to find the balance. We cannot say we support free speech and then shut it down; likewise we should always be vigilant of the loudest voices in a debate as they too often hijack the discussion and become the ones who end up setting the the agenda. 

Pro-life protesters at the doors of our health facilities are my case in point. 

It is a disgrace that our reproductive laws currently stand where they are. While we fight to have abortion law to be removed from the Crimes Act, our justice system could show some moral courage of its own and impose buffer zones around reproductive health clinics. Our politicians cannot be intimidated by groups who use a false claim of rights to freedom of speech in order to perpetrate harm.

The law commission review of abortion law needs to look at this issue very closely. Buffer zones should be implemented and they need to be extended to GPs and smaller clinics. Anywhere a person can access health or reproductive services should be out of bounds. New Zealand’s laws around abortion already fall short of our human rights obligations, and still we must fight for our rights to access medical care, including abortion, which must be considered a health care issue rather than a criminal matter. 

Anti-abortion campaigners are entitled to their opinion but they are not entitled to play a dirty game. This is not free speech in action, it is sponsored intimidation and I call foul.