Don’t ban protests, even those of bigots

Abortion laws in Australia are worse than you think. 

The procedure is still in the criminal code in NSW and Queensland. A woman seeking an abortion in NSW needs a doctor to say that the pregnancy threatens her health or wellbeing. In South Australia, she needs two doctors to believe that it directly endangers her health. 

Around the country, even where abortion is legal, the procedure is often expensive and difficult to access. The left has historically fought to change this by demanding free, safe and accessible abortions. Part of this fight has always meant standing up to right wing bigots when they hold misogynistic demonstrations in front of abortion clinics and in our cities.

But in recent years, the debate has shifted to the right. “Safe Access Zones” – anti-protest areas surrounding abortion clinics – have been written into law in Victoria, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and ACT, and were recently passed by the NSW upper house. 

Usually pushed by Labor and the Greens, but by no means opposed by all National and Liberal MPs, these laws make it a crime to protest about abortion within 150 metres of a clinic. The NSW bill carries a maximum fine of $11,000 and a one-year jail term. The legislation is supported by several Liberal and National MPs, including the NSW premier. 

The left should reject laws like these. They are an attack on the right to protest, even if the stated targets are bigots. Contrary to what some advocates have claimed, these laws do nothing to protect women from physical violence outside abortion clinics. It’s already illegal to attack people in the street. Safe Access Zones place a ban on protests, pickets and leafleting, plain and simple.

Workers and unions already face some of the worst anti-strike laws in the developed world. So demanding that the police and courts be given more power to shut down protests and pickets is deeply problematic. 

It is foolish to believe that such laws will only ever target right wing protesters. It is easy to imagine the laws being applied to pro-choice demonstrators or striking health workers setting up a picket line. All a judge need believe is that such actions could cause stress or anxiety to any woman attempting to access an abortion.

There is cynicism and hypocrisy behind ALP MLC Penny Sharpe’s NSW bill, co-authored by National Party member Trevor Khan. NSW Labor is positioning itself as a champion of women’s reproductive rights by introducing this draconian anti-protest law. 

Yet two years ago, the party helped scuttle a Greens bill to decriminalise abortion in NSW by allowing its bigoted members to vote with their “conscience”. The focus on Safe Access Zones takes the pressure off Labor to actually reform the country’s restrictive abortion laws and lets it off the hook for its generally terrible stance on abortion rights, both historically and today.

The left can’t fight bigotry by calling on establishment institutions like the police and the courts to restrict political expression. 

Instead, we should oppose pro-lifers by exercising our own right to protest and fighting to overturn sexist abortion laws around Australia. NSW Labor isn’t willing to do either. It has chosen the route that won’t upset its Liberal and Nationals colleagues too much – banning protests.