Pro-life leaders have welcomed a High Court challenge to so-called abortion clinic ‘safe zone’ laws around the country.
Two demonstrators, Kathleen Clubb and John Preston, were fined for protesting peacefully outside abortion clinics in Victoria and Tasmania under the laws which ban communication about abortion to people entering or leaving a service in a way that is reasonably likely to cause distress or anxiety.
They are both challenging the laws, arguing they breach the implied right to political speech under the Australian Constitution.
The lawyer representing them, Guy Reynolds SC, told the High Court in Canberra on 9 October that safe access zone laws discriminate against political speech.
“Its practical effect is to deprive anti-abortion protesters of one of their primary fora for such protests and probably their most effective forum,” Mr Reynolds said.
“That discrimination causes a distortion of the free flow of information, it discriminates against a particular point of view and privileges the position of the other side.”
Director of the Sydney archdiocese’s Life, Marriage and Family Centre Christopher Gordon said the case was an important moment for the country. “It will be interesting to see if the High Court upholds our freedom of speech on this issue and if the judges recognise the right of Australians to offer practical support to vulnerable pregnant women,” he said.
Executive Officer of Right to Life NSW Isaac Spencer said the organisation is “glad that this case has been brought to the High Court”.
“Mrs Clubb is being prosecuted for offering life-saving help to women in crisis, and the fact that this is now illegal is a national disgrace,” he said.
“We hope that the Court will overturn these bad laws and give women some protection against unscrupulous abortion clinics, who we know do not have the best interests of women and children at heart.”
Chief Executive Officer of Women & Babies Support (WOMBS) Tiana Legge also welcomed the case.
“Our hope is that the outcome will be in favour of Kathy Clubb,” she said.
“We know that many women are not offered support in pregnancy from their partners or significant people in their lives, or due to a lack of pregnancy support services. Once inside an abortion clinic, women do not receive adequate counselling or support to continue a pregnancy there either.
“This effectively means many women in challenging pregnancies are not offered a choice and this puts them at greater risk of psychological harm after a termination. People like Kathy Clubb who offer support to women otherwise falling through a gap in health care, should not be criminalised for counselling outside a clinic when it is done in a respectful and otherwise law-abiding manner.”
Managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby Martyn Iles agreed that the case was set to become one of the “most important cases in our nation’s history for both freedom of speech and the pro-life movement”.
“The outcome of this case will have implications both for individual states and the nation,” he said.
“Not only will the ruling impact state laws on exclusion zones, but it will have broader implications for whether governments can outlaw communication on political subjects in certain places. That is an extremely important issue. The ACL believes this is one of the most critical cases regarding freedom of speech and the pro-life movement ever to reach the High Court.”
The hearing will continue until 11 October.