As proposed legislation to introduce 150-metre “safe access zones” around abortion clinics was debated in NSW parliament today, the people it impacts most – staff and patients – were desperately watching on.
The bill, co-sponsored by Labor MP Penny Sharpe and Nationals MP Trevor Kahn passed the upper house on Thursday afternoon after government MPs were allowed a conscience vote.
It proposes to make it illegal to obstruct, intimidate, distress or film without consent staff and patients within 150m of an abortion clinic, bringing the state in line with Victoria, Tasmania, Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory.
Under the laws, anti-abortion protesters caught interfering with staff or patients could be fined $5500 or jailed for six months. Repeat offenders face a fine of $11,000 and a year in prison.
The debate in parliament today was one that transcended political alliances.
“This is not a matter of left versus right, it is a matter of common decency,” Mr Kahn told the upper house. “It is not our place to judge these women, we do not know their stories.”
The bill is now expected to head to the lower house next month, and Ally* is one of the many women pleased to see the momentum behind it.
The 27-year-old Newcastle woman told Mamamia she underwent an abortion in 2015 at a Surry Hills clinic after her IUD contraceptive failed and her pregnancy became a danger to her health.
“If I had continued the pregnancy, it would have likely ended in complications to my health, both mental and physical, and would more than likely have ended in miscarriage,” she said.
To make matters even harder, Ally was crushed when on the way to the clinic, her long-term partner received a message warning that protesters were outside the front doors.
"We were given detailed instructions on how best to avoid them, and I was sneaked in through the back. I felt like I had a dirty secret. I felt like a criminal. I felt less than human. And that feeling stayed long after the effects of pregnancy faded," she said.
"I have seen their pickets, the images of mangled fetuses. I have heard their words, felt them. I have been called a bitch, a witch, a demon, a whore. I have been threatened, mostly online."
Ally said she now lived in fear of publicly sharing her experience, despite rightfully feeling no shame for her choice to terminate. She said the worst thing was being called a "murderer".
"Having had an abortion does not make me a bad person. It makes me someone who had a life saving procedure to end an unviable pregnancy. I hate that I have to defend my humanity, I shouldn't have to do this, just because I had a group of unwanted cells extracted from my body which could not bear the burden of pregnancy," she said.
This is why the bill - should it pass - means so much to Ally on a highly personal level, saying it reinforces what she already knows: she is absolutely no "murderer".
"(It) reinforces the idea I am not a bad person, I am not a murderer," she said. "Abortions are life saving procedures that are personal medical choices. It won't fix everything, but it sends a message to every person who has the potential to fall pregnant, that they get to decide what is best for themselves, as they should, and that they can do this without facing harassment and torment. This should be every person's right."
Marie Stopes chief executive Michelle Thompson said the provision of safe access zones goes a long way toward helping patients and staff feel secure.
“This legislation is not about attacking free speech. In fact no one is telling these picketers what they can and can’t say. What this legislation does is provide privacy so a person can access a medical service," Ms Thompson said.
Frustatingly, NSW is one of three Australian states to still criminalise or restrict abortion (the others being Queensland and South Australia).
And while this is disappointing for Ally, she said establishing safe access zones was at least a step in the right direction.
"We can't fix everything overnight, but if we can change the cultural discourse around abortions, step by step, then it is worth doing."
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons