I've only ever been to one protest in my life. Even then, it was an accident. I just happened to be walking through Federation Square in Melbourne on a day when members of the public were protesting against the war in Iraq. Curious to listen, I joined a nearby group. Someone handed me a 'No War for Oil' placard. I think I may even have been photographed holding it.
Some of my family and friends are much more intentional protestors. My Mum recently took to the streets for the Melbourne Refugee Rally. Some friends pushed their prams to parliament to protest against the closure of Melbourne's last remaining public hospital birthing centre, others took part in the Melbourne March for the Babies, or advocated for greater reproductive rights.
While many protests occur in the centre of town, including the steps of parliament, it's not unusual for these events to take place outside venues where members of the public have concerns about 'what's going on inside'. Protests occur outside detention centres, coal mines, conference centres, building sites, hospitals, and abortion clinics. We might not wish to join the protest, but everyone has the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.
Or do they?
Last week Tasmania passed a law which effectively immunises abortion clinics from the possibility of a public protest outside their premises. The Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Act 2013 does this by preventing members of the public from engaging in 'prohibited behaviour' within 150 metres of abortion clinics. The Act defines 'prohibited behaviour' to include engaging in 'a protest' that can be 'seen or heard' by a person accessing the clinic.
Abortion is an extremely sensitive issue, and no woman approaching an abortion facility should be harassed or threatened. However, the difficulty is that the definition of 'prohibited behaviour' is so broad that it has the possibility of slapping those who engage in even the most peaceful of protests with a hefty fine, or even a prison sentence.
Many people may feel that protesting outside abortion clinics is not an effective way to engage in the abortion debate, and fair enough. I imagine the same could be said about protesting outside a detention centre, joint Defence facility or any other venue that represents unacceptable policies to particular voting members of the public.
If this is true, why should the premises at which terminations are carried out deserve special immunity from the public, and not other locations or premises? Will the Tasmanian Parliament now create access zones around every other location in which a public protest might possibly occur? Why single out one venue and not others?
This Act seeks to establish a precedent for the limiting of freedom of speech and assembly that is damaging to a free society. These freedoms are central tenets of a liberal democratic society and deserve broad protection, subject only to the criminal law and also laws on public disorder.
We may not all be seasoned protestors, but I would like to think that all Australians are free to peacefully assemble outside of a venue when they're concerned about 'what's going on inside'.
I would also like to think that Australians are free to abstain from activities that violate their deeply held beliefs. Members of the Greens party shouldn't be forced to hand out Liberal how-to-vote cards, civil celebrants shouldn't be required to recite poems they find distasteful or prayers that contradict their world view. Nor should Rabbis be required to point out the nearest church or mosque before commencing their service.
However, Tasmania's Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Act 2013 again proves controversial in that it limits the right of conscientious objection in relation to the issue of abortion. For example, the Act requires medical practitioners who conscientiously object to abortion to provide their patients with a list of those who do not hold such an objection. Section 8 of Victoria's Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 contains a similar provision.
Providing patients with a list of providers might seem like a reasonable requirement in the scheme of things. However, this is to overlook the fact that it forces medical practitioners to direct their patients to a service which they do not recommend for one reason or another. It essentially treats members of the profession as automatons that can't think for themselves when it comes to the issue of abortion, but must "just follow orders".
Women facing difficult pregnancies ought to be taken seriously, and treated with compassion and respect. Yet this should not mean that doctors who care for such women can't also be taken seriously and be free to act in accordance with their own conscience and convictions.
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