Monica Doumit: My opinion is not a criminal act, and neither is supporting women under pressure

Note: This piece went to print on 9 May 2017, two days before a bill to decriminalise abortion was voted down in the NSW Parliament by 25-14. 

On Thursday, 11 May, the bill to decriminalise abortion in NSW introduced by Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi, will be debated in NSW Parliament. It is not expected that the bill will pass, because its attempt to make abortion legal for any reason up until the moment of a child’s birth is too extreme a position, even for abortion advocates.

It is suggested that once the Faruqi bill is defeated, Labor MLC Penny Sharpe will push to have her bill debated and voted upon. Ms Sharpe’s bill is much simpler.

It does not seek to decriminalise abortion, but to punish those who stand outside abortion clinics in protest or prayer, or offering counselling or pregnancy assistance, with fines as high as $16,500 and up to 12 months in prison.

I’ve written numerous times about these bills in recent weeks, and you might be getting sick of the topic, but I think that we now need to direct our focus to the problems in Ms Sharpe’s bill.

I have heard from many people, even those who oppose abortion, that the proposed exclusion zones around abortion clinics are appropriate, because women shouldn’t be confronted by protesters – even peaceful protesters – when making such a difficult decision.

They find it difficult to defend the right of those who oppose abortion to be allowed to show their opposition so close to a clinic. The first thing I would say to these people is that they should witness for themselves the types of vigils which are held outside abortion clinics.

Pro-abortionist propagandists manufacture images of their opponents yelling and screaming, holding confronting signs bearing graphic images, and portraying them as engaging in physical intimidation, but none of this is true.

Not only is it against the dignity of the human person (which is the impetus for the vigil in the first place), but it would be almost completely ineffective in getting their point across.

But there are other reasons why ‘exclusion zone’ laws are bad.

I’ve said it before, but the exclusion zones punish opinion and not behaviour. If current laws which make it an offence to harass or intimidate a person are insufficient to protect NSW citizens, then they should be strengthened for all situations – not just around abortion clinics.  Holding an opinion should not be criminal.

There is also something important about being present when a life is ending. Just over two years ago, two of the Bali Nine, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, were executed on Nusakambangan prison island. Their families were not allowed to travel to the island, so instead kept vigil at the closest ferry terminal possible.

No one questioned why they were there, and why they could not have prayed at a more distant location because we all understand that presence matters.

But the main reason why exclusion zone laws need to be opposed is because without them, vulnerable women are left with fewer choices.

Imagine a woman who finds out she is pregnant. She tells the baby’s father, who she is living with, and he responds that he does not want the child.

He tells her that if she does not have an abortion, he will break up with her and she will have to move out.

This woman might want to keep the baby, but cannot imagine how she will cope on her own, particularly in Sydney’s disastrous property market. Reluctant and sad, she makes an appointment for a termination.

Under current law, on her way to the clinic, this woman might encounter a sidewalk counsellor who tells her that help is available, including emergency accommodation, financial assistance, medical care, baby clothes and the like. If she wants to keep this baby, they tell her, she will be supported in doing so.

But if the exclusion zone laws are passed, no one with an objection to abortion is allowed within 150 metres of a clinic, nor are they permitted to advertise in a manner which can be seen from the clinic.
If this was the case, how would this woman know where to find help?

It’s not like pregnancy help groups can afford to run big advertising campaigns. They run on donations. Groups which offer help to pregnant women do so for free (as opposed to abortion clinics that profit from the ‘assistance’ they provide.)

And if a pregnancy help group did have a budget for advertising, they would nonetheless run into difficulties.

In 2014, Google removed advertisements from ‘pregnancy help’ centres which opposed abortion, suggesting that they were misleading potential customers into thinking that they provided abortion.

With the capacity of those offering pregnancy assistance to advertise being stifled by law and business, how would our vulnerable, pregnant woman know help is available? How will she be presented with a variety of options so that she can make the best choice for her?

The situation isn’t hypothetical. There are real women every day going to abortion clinics in NSW. Some of them want to be there, but others don’t.

If exclusion zone laws are passed, then those feeling like they have no option other than abortion will have their right to know that help is available taken away from them, ironically – and disturbingly – in the name of ‘choice.’

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