Are Safe Spaces New?
While the implementation of safe spaces in NSW is new, it is actually not a new concept in Australia at all. Four other states and territories have similar laws in place to protect those who might seek to enter an abortion clinic from unwanted harassment or attention. Victoria, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory have similar laws in place.
Why are Safe Spaces Needed?
Abortion has always been a highly emotional social issue. Those against it have sought to protest against the practice of offering abortions to pregnant women in the media and in the political realm. However, in some cases, protests have also taken place at the locations where abortion services are offered by doctors.
These protestors are sometimes also called “footpath counsellors” as some attempt to speak with those seeking to enter clinics to deter them from choosing an abortion in favour of other courses of action.
In other cases, protesters have been known to be more aggressive, with verbal abuse, threats and graphic posters and displays set up near abortion clinics to create a hostile atmosphere and deter people from approaching the area or entering.
In the past, there was no specific provision of the law to deal with these protesters, beyond the general “move on” powers that police have to require persons to leave an area if a complaint is made against them.
What’s the Change?
Now, safe access zones in NSW have been created to impose an area of 150 metres around clinics that offer abortion services. The law now expressly prohibits “interfering” with any person who is attempting to enter or leave a clinic if they are within this safe area.
“Interfering” as defined in the law includes physical harassment, verbal harassment as well as filming a person without their consent as they enter or leave the clinic. In addition, the law makes it an offence to communicate with persons in these safe zones in a way that is likely to cause a person distress or anxiety – which is targeted at the use of graphic displays or images in the area around a clinic.
The penalties for breaching these rules are harsh. A fine of $5,000 and six months of imprisonment is the maximum penalty for a first offence. Any further offences result in the doubling of the penalty to $10,000 and a potential 12 months’ jail time.
What it Means in Practice
In practice, the law change means that a person seeking to enter a clinic that offers abortion services should now be able to do so without harassment. If a person is dropped off near the entrance of a clinic or is able to park or disembark from transport within 150 metres of the entrance, they are within the safe access zone created by the law, and should be able to enter without interference or unwanted attention.