Today’s action in Parliament featured an extra morning sitting, a chance to catch up on some Member’s Bills that got held up by Covid last year.
As such it was a potpourri of Bills, ranging from committee stages for a bill to amend the law on ‘revenge porn’ and one to regulate sunscreens. It also included completing a second reading of the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Bill, a piece of legislation which has been shaped to balance one set of rights versus another set of rights.
The Bill, brought to the House by Labour MP Louisa Wall, aims to protect the safety, wellbeing, and privacy of women accessing abortion facilities by creating a regulation-making power to enable safe areas around specific providers.
Labour’s Vanushi Walters told the House that she’d heard very personal stories from women about the barriers to accessing this type of healthcare.
“Many faced harassment, obstruction, or intimidation, and there have also been stories of women who didn't have an experience of harassment or obstruction but who spoke about being terrified that they would, that they'd have their photo shared on social media. They were terrified of being identified or harassed while trying to access a health service. There were some who chose simply not to present to access that health service at a healthcare facility.
“Terry Bellamak wrote last year of the problems we faced, and she wrote "The actions of harassers sometimes take a turn for the dramatic. Shouts of 'murderer' or 'have mercy on your baby'.”
As the Green Party’s Jan Logie explained, the select committee looking at this bill received hundreds of submissions from people who believe it's their right and actually their duty to intervene in a way to try and prevent people having abortions.
“The committee was presented with a recent survey of abortion service providers that found over half of them are currently dealing with protests. That protest action is increasing, not decreasing,” Logie said
“We heard evidence of patients being chased into clinics. We heard of pamphleting, loud hymn singing, blockading of doors, protesters approaching and speaking to patients and calling individual staff by name to intimidate, photographing of staff and patients, and refusing to leave when asked.
“This is why some who previously had indicated they didn't support safe zone had indicated that they now do, because they are seeing an escalation, an escalation that the Green Party have felt in a physical way, where our co-leader James Shaw was assaulted by somebody who said a reason for that assault was our position on abortion rights.”
While acknowledging the right of people to have and express differences of opinion on abortion, Labour’s Kieran McAnulty highlighted a parallel with the current protest occupation at parliament, now into its second week.
“But we have seen, very recently, how protests can cross the line. We will fight in Parliament at every opportunity for people's right to protest, but when that protest then stops other people going about their rightful, legal lives, that, I believe, is crossing the line. What this bill will achieve, when it passes, is ensure that people that are pursuing a legal right to a medical procedure can do so safely.”
Striking a balance
During Parliament’s work in 2020 on the new abortion law, the ACT Party had engineered the removal of safe areas because, as Brooke Van Helden explained, they didn't believe that the right balance had been struck between protecting individual rights and free speech.
“It's because we believe that it was far too broad… to simply say that communicating in an area close to an abortion facility should be prohibited, we believed it would have a chilling effect on free speech.
“And I'm glad that we were able—in good faith—to come to a compromise that struck a better balance between the right for people to access health services in a manner that they feel respected, but also to uphold the rights of freedom of speech in a democratic country with justifiable limitation.”
The party, she said, was now happy with the balance of rights in this bill.
In fact no MP spoke against the bill at the second reading - and it will progress to the Committee Stage - likely next month.