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Monica Doumit: A practical lesson in the irony of exclusion zones

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Protesters at the rear of the NSW Parliament on the Day of the Unborn Child in Sydney, 26 March 2016. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

There is not much which surprises me these days. Spending as much time as I do following debates on the most critical issues of our time, I have seen people attempt to twist logic and reason to justify all sorts of ideas and behaviours.

But this past week, I saw an example of rank hypocrisy – and people’s wilful blindness to it – that managed to amaze me.

Last week, the annual Day of the Unborn Child was marked around the world, including at a Mass and Rosary procession in Sydney. You would have read about the event – and a protest organised by some pro-abortionists – in last week’s Catholic Weekly.

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I didn’t attend the Mass, but arrived early enough for the procession to be able to observe the protest which was occurring outside.

Anti-pope and anti-porcine: A pro-abortion protester outside St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 26 March 2016. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

While the Mass was still underway, protestors gathered by the western door of the Cathedral, and used a megaphone to yell chants and give speeches about the ‘right’ to abortion and their disgust that anyone – particularly the Church – would oppose it. I am told by a friend who attended the Mass that the protest could definitely be heard, and was quite disruptive, but that the intensity of prayers increased accordingly.

Among the speakers were Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi, (who is on a campaign to decriminalise abortion in NSW), and a representative for Labor MLC Penny Sharpe.

Ms Sharpe last week introduced a private members’ bill which, if passed, would create exclusion zones of 150 metres around abortion clinics in a similar fashion to those currently in place in the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory, Victoria and Tasmania.

I’ll return to Ms Sharpe’s draft legislation in a moment, but I want to finish describing my experience at the procession.

As I stood listening to the protesters, a young woman approached me, asking if I was there for the counter-protest. I replied that I was simply there to listen. She asked specifically: “Are you pro-abortion?” I told her that I wasn’t.

“You can f–k off then,” she said. “This is a pro-choice rally.”

“Actually, it looks awfully like a public street to me, so I will just stay right here,” I replied.

Maybe I was a little uncharitable, and my new friend was not impressed. “Well, I’m just going to stand here and abuse you until you leave then,” she told me, and proceeded to do just that; screaming expletives and taking photographs of me while I stood there.

I suggested that, if she wanted to convince me, my new friend might like to let me listen to the speeches.

“You don’t want to be convinced,” she retorted. She was right. I was being disingenuous. A better person than me would have tried to engage with this poor girl who was obviously troubled, but I just wanted her to be quiet.

Some of the people participating in the Day of the Unborn Child procession, 26 March 2016. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Mass finished and I saw an elderly woman using a walking aid have to navigate her way through the protesters, who were waving placards and screaming as she tried to get away.

The group then processed to Parliament House in anticipation of the Rosary procession which would soon follow.

On advice from the police, the Rosary procession did not proceed along Macquarie Street, but was instead diverted through the parklands, and our group assembled behind Parliament House.

The protesters realised that we were not going to join them out the front of Parliament House, and so ran to meet us. They were intercepted by the police, but continued to scream in protest through their megaphone. After a few more prayers and some speeches, our group returned to the Cathedral for Adoration and Benediction to conclude the day.

Later in the same week, Penny Sharpe MLC introduced her ‘exclusion zone’ bill into NSW Parliament. In her second reading speech, Ms Sharpe spoke to the rationale behind the proposed legislation.

She said that women were “subjected to harassment and intimidation” as they attempted to enter abortion clinics, commenting that this type of harassment and intimidation of anyone is always unacceptable, and that “reproductive health clinics” should not be seen differently.

Ms Sharpe did not see the irony that in the same week, a group which included a representative from her office, harassed and intimidated Massgoers as they exited the Cathedral. Despite her comments in Parliament, Ms Sharpe appears to believe that women accessing “reproductive health clinics” should indeed be seen differently, because she is trying to provide them a special class of protection she will not extend to those wanting to attend on Sunday.

Ms Sharpe then told Parliament that women seeking abortion were forced to “run the gauntlet of people who try to stop them with physical harassment and verbal abuse” and were sometimes filmed during the process.

Day of the Unborn Child enthusiasts listen to speeches from pro-life leaders. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Not only are her statements a gross misrepresentation of the conduct of those who pray outside abortion clinics, they also describe exactly the behaviour of the pro-abortion activists which I myself experienced outside St Mary’s Cathedral a few days earlier.

Ms Sharpe went on to say that the bill would not prevent people from holding, expressing or protesting their views on abortion, but that it would ensure it did not happen around abortion clinics.

If Ms Sharpe really did believe it was acceptable for a person to oppose abortion, provided they did not do so within 150 metres of an abortion clinic, it is curious that she allowed a representative from her office to attempt to disrupt both the Mass at the Cathedral and the peaceful procession to Parliament House afterwards.

Surely those involved in the Day of the Unborn Child were expressing their views in the exact manner Ms Sharpe foresees as permissible if she gets her way, but she sent a staffer to represent her at the protest anyway.

The push for exclusion zones has never been about the conduct of the individuals keeping vigil outside abortion clinics; it has been about their opinion. The violence and intimidation of which Ms Sharpe accuses vigilkeepers is already prohibited under NSW criminal law.

But Ms Sharpe’s proposed laws go further, and if passed, could result in a person who is standing in prayer across the street from an abortion clinic (like in the 40 Days for Life campaign) being fined up to $16,500 and imprisoned for up to 12 months.

Ms Sharpe doesn’t want to protect women from harassment; she wants to protect abortion from public opinion. That’s why her proposed legislation only deals with conduct occurring around abortion clinics and not around Cathedrals and why she sent a staffer to disrupt a Mass and prayerful procession.

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