Abortion-clinic buffer zones are not a free-speech issue

Abortion is one of the most contested and morally vexed issues of our time. As with all political questions, it deserves to be debated openly. But those on the pro-life side need to understand that making the argument against abortion is different to obstructing women’s access to abortion clinics.

Kathleen Clubb, an anti-abortion activist from Melbourne, Australia, was charged last year for breaching the 2015 Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Safe Access Zones) Act in Victoria. The act effectively installed buffer zones around abortion clinics in the state, prohibiting protesters from stopping women entering clinics. Clubb was prosecuted after she allegedly harassed a couple entering a fertility-control clinic in 2016.

Clubb, a mother of 13, is not just disputing the charge, she’s challenging the validity of the law itself. The thrust of her claim is that the act’s prohibition on behaviour ‘reasonably likely to cause distress or anxiety’ within 150 metres of an abortion clinic offends her implied freedom of political communication – an Australian legal doctrine that protects free expression in matters of public debate.

Her case is flimsy. The Australian High Court has made it plain on multiple occasions that implied freedom only serves to prevent law which unreasonably restricts political expression detached from any genuine basis in public policy. Clubb, along with the coterie of Right To Life groups supporting her, clearly has a wrongheaded view of free speech.

Encouraging open debate on thorny subjects like abortion gives a full hearing to both sides of the argument, forcing all perspectives to grapple with their critics and defend their cause. But the belief that reasoned debate is advanced by granting pro-lifers free rein to threaten, bully and block women from entering abortion clinics is nonsense. If pro-lifers have failed to persuade women by the time they’ve got one foot in the clinic door, it’s hard to see how demeaning snipes and gruesome placards are likely to achieve anything other than humiliation.

The line between peaceful assemblies (like Christians offering counsel in the hope that they might procure a change of heart) and sabre-rattling pro-lifers trying to deter women from accessing medical care is not always easily drawn. Fortunately, the fact that Victorian law only outlaws behaviour likely to cause distress or anxiety indicates its emphasis on the latter.

If pro-lifers want to win the abortion debate, they should use facts, rationality and reason, rather than relying on humiliation to prevent women from accessing abortion services.

John Slater is a writer and policy analyst based in Brisbane, Australia.

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