I would like to say a few words today about this legislation which responds to concerns about protests outside approved health facilities in the ACT that provide pregnancy terminations. This is an issue I have given careful consideration to.
I am not here in this Assembly to place limitations on freedom of speech and absolutely agree that in a democracy we need to have a free debate. At the same time, free speech is not absolute and we need to be respectful of the impact words and actions can have on people in our society, particularly at a vulnerable time.
To that end I believe this bill strikes the right balance and I will support it. Its primary objective is to protect a woman’s right to access abortion services in relative privacy and free from the intimidating conduct of others. Termination of pregnancy or abortion has been legal in the ACT since 2002 and is regulated like other health services provided by a medical practitioner to their patients. It should be noted that the bill does not target protest itself and indeed there are many more appropriate places to protest and stage vigils than directly outside a health service.
The limitations created by this bill are very minor and site-specific and do not interfere with a person’s more general right to protest in person or in other methods in relation to abortion. Nor does the bill interfere with any person’s ability to make their objections known to others in the community, such as law makers. Furthermore, the limitations apply only during a defined period of time.
I think we need to consider that it not just women using such services who can feel intimidated. It is also their partners or families and friends, the staff and other people who work in the buildings who should be able to walk into these buildings free from prejudice.
On the issue of freedom of speech, the bill creates a minor limitation on a person’s right to freedom of expression. But this limitation is reasonable and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society, consistent with the requirements of section 28 of the Human Rights Act.
I am aware that there are two sides to this debate and understand some people in our community believe they are performing an important service. But we already have a range of services available to women who are struggling with these types of decisions and the staff who work in these services are compassionate and trained to offer women the support they need.
As I said, this bill strikes the right balance. This type of legislation is already in effect in Tasmania and I understand it is being considered in Victoria as well. Ultimately this bill is designed to protect members of the community from unwanted attention that can impede access to a legal health service.
Protests can be peaceful and still be intimidating. I believe this is the least restrictive means possible of achieving the purpose of protecting patient privacy and the right to access medical services.
I thank those people who have emailed me and come to see me from both sides of the debate about this. I believe it is better to make representations to me and to my colleagues in this place than to do so towards women seeking to use a legal health service who should not have to bear the burden of being at the forefront of the abortion debate.