Pro-life leaders have denounced a High Court ruling against two anti-abortion advocates, saying it has grave implications for freedom of speech in Australia as well as the safety of women and children.
Kathleen Clubb and Graham Preston were convicted on 9 April under laws prohibiting protests in exclusion zones outside abortion facilities.
Ms Clubb was arrested after attempting to hand out a pamphlet outside a Melbourne clinic in 2016, while Mr Preston faced charges for protesting within the exclusion zone of a clinic in Hobart in 2014 and 2015.
Their appeal to the High Court centred on the implied right to freedom of political communication in the constitution. Judges dismissed the appeal on 9 April saying the laws were necessary and outweighed concerns about freedom of speech within the zones, and that the information in Ms Clubb’s case was not political.
Ms Clubb told The Catholic Weekly the decision was disappointing, particularly as it was an unanimous decision from seven judges, and that she is planning to appeal her conviction in the Supreme Court.
“I feel as though our culture is in the grip of an ideology that doesn’t allow dissent,” she said.
Following the appeal Ms Clubb told media that the High Court had made a “terrible decision” to uphold their convictions under state-based exclusion zone laws and that it marked the death of free speech.
Australian Christian Lobby managing director Martyn Iles said the decision marked a “sad day”.
“This judgement means that the simple act of communication on a particular issue in a particular place can be met with an extreme penalty,” he told The Catholic Weekly.
“We are gravely concerned at what this could men for religious freedom in Australia going forward.”
Executive Officer of Right to Life NSW Isaac Spencer said the ruling was a “deeply concerning and dangerous” one.
“Too often, women end up at NSW abortion clinics in desperation, stigmatised by our ‘pro-choice’ society, made to feel that they have no option other than abortion,” he said. “These women are offered no genuine support or options from the abortion clinic to keep their baby.
“Vulnerable pregnant mothers deserve to have access to the genuine help and support that women like Kathy have been providing for years. This ruling will only reduce choice for those vulnerable women – as well as further reducing any protection for their tiny, defenceless unborn children.”
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Neil Foster, associate professor of law at the University of Newcastle and author of the Law and Religion Australia blog, also viewed the decision as an important one with respect to free speech issues.
“The decision may have serious implications for free speech about other issues on which religious believers have deep-seated convictions contrary to the general orthodoxy of modern Australian society,” he said.
Others expressed support for the decision, including The Human Rights Law Centre which said it acknowledged the “importance of privacy, safety and equality in access to healthcare”.
Ms Clubb was the first person to be convicted under Victoria’s abortion protest laws, which came into effect in May 2016, and was fined $5000. In July of the same year Mr Preston was fined $3000 for breaching similar laws protesting outside an abortion clinic in Hobart.
Ms Clubb said that she will continue in her efforts to educate the public about abortion through her website (thefreedomsproject.com) and social media. “I’ll never stop exposing abortion as the greatest human rights abuse in history, and as something that grieves the heart of Jesus,” she said.