Women delay treatment at abortion clinic because of harassment, court told

Women delay treatment at abortion clinic because of harassment, court told

Many women have been delayed from getting important medical treatment from the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne because of harassment from anti-abortion protesters, Victoria’s supreme court has heard. The clinic has brought Melbourne city council to the court, accusing the council of failing to stop the harassment of clinic patients and staff across more than two decades, alleging it had breached the state’s Public Health and Wellbeing Act.

Peter Hanks QC, representing the clinic, told justice Michael McDonald that the council was obligated, under the section 58 of the Act, to stop “nuisances which are, or are liable to be, dangerous to health or offensive”.

But the definition of nuisance was deliberated by McDonald and Hanks throughout Wednesday, with Hanks at one point reading a definition from the Oxford dictionary to support the case.

Hanks said the council had a “far too narrow” view of what constituted a nuisance, believing it only applied to behaviour that involved physically blocking the entry to the clinic.

“In our submission, [the definition is] far wider than that,” Hanks said.

“For example, blocking the footpath, causing patients to feel fearful to proceed, acting in a hostile manner. Patients have been discouraged from attending. That can’t be a trivial matter.

“It is a nuisance which is, or is liable to be, dangerous to health.”

Hanks said it was not the political views of the protesters, but the manner in which they were delivering their views to women using “significant interference,” which the clinic was seeking to stop.

They jostled and shouted at women, made offensive, frightening and misleading statements, and were so intimidating that some patients had been deterred from attending the clinic at all, Hanks said.

Under the Public Health Act, Hanks said the city council had the jurisdiction to issue infringement notices to protesters and to create a safe access zone, but had failed to exercise this jurisdiction.

But Melbourne city council senior counsel, Richard Niall QC, told the court there had been no refusal or failure by council to exercise its authority, because it had investigated complaints against the centre.

“Even if we are wrong and there is a duty that has not been fulfilled ... the court can not say [this duty] must be exercised [in a particular way],” he said.

Members of the group behind the protests, Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, were present in the courtroom but did not comment to the media. Guardian Australia has separately contacted Tanya O’Brien, leader of the group’s Melbourne branch, for comment. The role of freedom of speech was also deliberated in the court.

Countries such as the US, where freedom of speech was embedded in the constitution’s first amendment, had nonetheless implemented exclusion zones around abortion and fertility clinics in some states, Hanks told the court.

In Canada, he added, “although there is a right to free speech, there is no right to compel someone to listen to your speech”.

The director of advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, Emily Howie, who was also representing the clinic, said access zones had been created under abortion legislation in Tasmania, preventing protesters from gathering outside clinics.

There was also an access zone around Victoria’s parliament house, she said, demonstrating such zones could co-exist with the right to free political speech and to protest.

Dr Susie Allanson, a witness in the case and a clinical psychologist who has been working at the clinic for 24 years, told reporters that anti-abortion protesters were outside the clinic six days a week.

Allanson said the protests had occurred for as long as she had been working there, and that the city council and police had been called “hundreds” of times over more than two decades.

“It’s a complete waste, this reactive approach that doesn’t seem to achieve anything,” Allanson said.

“We would like a proactive response to this ongoing problem, it’s just chronic.”

In her first few years working at the clinic, Allanson said she refused to go outside during work hours. Now, if she needs to leave during the day, she said she was escorted by a security guard.

On other occasions, she said she felt she was being followed while driving home.

“We’re very disappointed that our concerns have not been taken seriously,” Allanson said.

“I don’t know whether it falls under the umbrella of sexism or the way violence against women has not been taken seriously in many respects, because I think it’s a form of violence and disrespect to women.”

In many cases, women delayed their treatment at the clinic, she said, while in rare cases, some women never returned.

A city council spokesman said he could not comment on the case because it was before the court.

But speaking at a press conference for Melbourne’s Metro rail project on Wednesday, lord mayor Robert Doyle responded to questions about the clinic.

“I’ve got a great deal of sympathy for those women who are harassed in, I think, quite a vile way at a difficult and sensitive time of their lives,” Doyle said.

“They don’t need a bunch of idiots giving them a hard time.”

But he said he did not support placing barriers outside the clinic to prevent protesters from making contact with women.

“It’s a very difficult situation,” he said.

In 2002, anti-abortion activist Peter James Knight was sentenced to life in prison after he entered the East Melbourne Fertility Clinic with a gun and shot and killed a security guard working there.

The hearing continues, and is expected to conclude on Thursday.

By Melissa Davey

The Guradian Wednesday 03 June 2015

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