A group of politicians, doctors, domestic violence prevention workers and locals will gather in Albury tomorrow to protest the fact that patients entering reproductive health clinics in NSW have been filmed, approached by anti-abortion protesters and asked to reconsider the termination of their pregnancy, handed plastic foetuses and shown disturbing images.
One of the speakers is NSW Labor MP Penny Sharpe who in March last year introduced a bill to create “safe access zones” around clinics and hospitals where abortions are provided, to protect patients and staff from harassment and intimidation. The bill has yet to be voted on.
“In reproductive health clinics across NSW, women are being publicly harassed, threatened and intimidated by groups and individuals who think their behaviour is justified," Sharpe told BuzzFeed News on Friday.
“This behaviour is causing great harm and cannot be justified.”
Tomorrow’s rally has been organised by local activist group We Need An Exclusion Zone Right Here Right Now, whose leader Liz Marmo spends most of her Thursdays (when terminations are available) monitoring the town’s Fertility Control Clinic.
Marmo and her volunteers keep at a distance to respect the privacy of women entering the clinic, and see their role as protecting the patients from harassment and "monitoring" the behaviour of anti-abortion demonstrators.
Dr. David Corbett has been an anaesthetist at the clinic for five years and will speak at the rally.
“These protesters say they stand there in silent prayer, and no-one could argue with that, but the reality is they approach [women] walking in and out and they have been known to go up to patients and tell them that she’s ‘murdering a baby’,” Corbett told BuzzFeed News.
“As doctors we don’t like patients being harassed and we don’t like patients being lied to.
One of the regular picketers also sprays "holy water" along the footpath outside the clinic.
Corbett said once, when his wife collected him from the clinic, she was handed a plastic foetal doll by a protester.
“We have a security guard now who protects the women being buttonholed by the protesters, but we also need the exclusion zones."
The anesthetist said locals were nervous about taking on the protesters as some were considered litigious.
“There is a lot of bluff and bluster about bringing in lawyers and ... I think that scares people a little,” he said.
In January last year married Albury anti-abortion picketers Roland and Anna von Marburg won $180,000 in damages from a retired obstetrician after they claimed they were defamed by comments on the Facebook page for which he was a spokesperson.
The husband and wife are members of Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, a Catholic Church-affiliated group which conducts vigils in Australia and the United States outside clinics where abortion is performed.
Members of the group erect signs, pray, and approach women entering Albury's Fertility Control Clinic.
Corbett said he will tomorrow call on locals to stand up to the picketers and call on politicians to vote for safe access zone legislation.
"This isn't about abortion, because women could just go to Canberra or Melbourne to get the procedure if they had to," he said. "This is about women being harassed because these people want brownie points in heaven."
In 2016 BuzzFeed News revealed that a church-funded cafe in Albury was raising money for the anti-abortion clinic next door. The money was going towards a $30,000 ultrasound machine for the Women's Life Centre – an organisation owned by the Catholic Parish of Holy Spirit Lavington – to scan women with unplanned pregnancies.
All profits from the cafe go towards supporting the work of the centre, which offers "free pregnancy testing", "natural family planning information", and counselling to pregnant women.
The centre's director Peta Evans was a founding member of anti-abortion group Helpers of God's Precious Infants.
Kyle Virtue has lived in Albury almost all her life and is speaking at the rally as a local.
"[The anti-abortion protesters] are lawyered up, financially they are supported and there is also just a ground level of support for them here in the community, because there is such a strong Catholic community here," Virtue told BuzzFeed News.
A mother and friend of Virtue's was harassed entering the clinic for a termination and she doesn't want anyone else to go through that.
"I am here as a community member saying there is this massive gaping hole in our legal system and it is failing women and it is something that we should be ashamed of."
Andreia Schineanu, a researcher and activist for women’s rights who lives and works in the local Riverina district, will be reading a speech from NSW Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi, who tried to decriminalise abortion in the state last year, at the rally tomorrow.
"[The Fertility Control Clinic] is the nearest option for an abortion to Wagga Wagga where I live," Schineanu told BuzzFeed News.
"You can't even get [medical abortion drug] RU486 in Wagga Wagga because [doctors] are so Catholic and conservative ... travelling to Albury is an expensive option and 120kms on public transport if you don't have a car."
Schineanu has worked in human services across women's refuges and homelessness services in the region.
"This is a huge issue because we get women who find themselves with unplanned pregnancies, sometimes as a result of rape or being pressured into sex, and a lot of women who have intellectual disabilities, and these women are not capable of supporting a child."
She is hopeful that the community, which she says has rallied around to stand up about domestic violence, will see this issue "as another way in which women are targeted".
Safe-access zones have proven effective in other states. In October last year a Melbourne mother who breached Victoria's safe access zones lost her case, despite backing from the Australian Christian Lobby, and was fined $5,000.
Religious picketer Kathy Clubb, a mother to 13 children, was found guilty of one charge of prohibited behaviour within a safe access zone, after she allegedly approached a couple outside East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic and tried to hand them pamphlets in August 2016.
Clubb became the first person in Victoria to be charged under laws which were formally passed in November 2015 and make it illegal to protest within 150 metres of an abortion clinic.
A cross-party working group including the Nationals’ Trevor Khan and Liberal MP Catherine Cusack has been established to examine Sharpe’s legislation. The hope is to reach a consensus that all political sides are comfortable with, before the bill is introduced to NSW State Parliament in April or May, the Daily Telegraph wrote today.
“The laws in NSW have failed to protect women," Sharpe told BuzzFeed News. "Safe access zones are working in Victoria, the ACT, the NT and Tasmania; it is time for women to have the same protection in NSW.
“I am working hard with MP’s across the parliament to get agreement on my bill to ensure that women in NSW will be free to access the medical treatment they need, including abortion, without the harassment and invasion of privacy by those outside clinics who disagree with their decisions.”