A run-down of the new Safe Areas Bill
The Equal Justice Project is a Pro Bono charity at the University of Auckland Law School that applies law students’ legal training and knowledge to promote social equality, inclusivity and access to justice in the local and wider community. Bronwyn Wilde, Co-Manager of the EJP Communications Team writes about the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Bill which the charity recently submitted in favour of.
Whether it be outside the hospital or the Countdown on Dominion Road, you’ve no doubt seen pro-life protestors before. Their confronting signboards’ graphic photographs are distressing to behold, even for the general public. Now imagine how it must feel for those who are the direct targets of these guilt-based tactics.
Currently the only available response to these protestors has been to hold counter-protests. A recent example on TikTok included people filming pro-life protestors with comedic commentary such as rating their outfits. While entertaining, such strategies are probably not effective long-term solutions. Fortunately, a Bill is currently going through Parliament which would create safe areas around abortion facilities.
Let me be abundantly clear: abortion is legal in New Zealand. It is no longer up for debate whether these women should be able to exercise their right to choose. Parliament has affirmed that this is a legal and human right. However, the presence of pro-life protestors outside clinics is obstructing some womens’ ability to excercise that right. This Bill is important to ensure that accessing an abortion is possible not only in theory, but in practice.
This Bill would create safe areas of up to 150 metres around abortion facilities. Within these areas it would be illegal to “intimidate, obstruct, visually record, or interfere or communicate with” a protected person in a way that would reasonably cause them emotional distress. A “protected person” includes anyone accessing or providing abortion services. Breach these provisions, and you could be subject to a fine of $1,000.
Craccum spoke to Violet*, a young woman who has had an abortion—making her part of the estimated one in four Kiwi women who have had an abortion. Violet spoke to us about how relieved and emotional the Bill made her. “Put simply, a woman does not deserve to be harassed or discriminated against for making an informed medical decision that is best for her body, her mind and her future.”
Protestors target already vulnerable individuals with guilt, manipulation or bullying tactics which impinge on the right to choose, medical autonomy, and accessibility. What’s more: it’s not even effective. Few women regret their abortions, and patients rarely change their minds. All these tactics achieve is creating unnecessary mental and emotional distress for individuals who are already in a fragile state of mind.
Some protestors defend their actions, saying it is important that these individuals have the opportunity to hear about the alternatives to abortion. Firstly, for some individuals, such as survivors of sexual assault, there are no real alternatives. As for others trying to access abortion, do you seriously think someone considering abortion has not already painstakingly weighed up the alternatives over and over in their own head?
Also, individuals would have the opportunity to hear an unbiased account of all these alternatives from the trained medical staff, if only they could get in the door of the facility.
Having spoken to some of these protestors, Violet notes that they aren’t necessarily interested in the health of the mother and child. They know little about abortion and are often spreading blatant misinformation about termination timelines and biology. These tactics are not genuinely aimed at informing, they are aimed at scaring women out of even making it out of their car.
Violet spoke about how she once spent a day occupying the space in front of the hospital where pro-life protesters would usually stand, holding signs. She said “multiple people approached my friends and I and thanked us… it became clear that these ‘protesters’ had done well at intimidating and traumatising multiple people in the wider community over an extended period of time.”
“Abortion already is both [intimidating and traumatising], without it being exacerbated by people who don’t know you, your story, your circumstances or your body.”
So maybe you’re thinking, hold up, but don’t we already have a bunch of offences for harassment that could cover this behaviour? What makes this offence different is it pays particular attention to the effect of the behaviour on a vulnerable “protected person”. Also, by naming this explicitly as an offence, Parliament is actively denouncing this behaviour and showing its support for women, further destigmatising abortion in New Zealand.
This is not a revolutionary concept. Safe areas are actually common in other parts of the world, like Canada and Australia. New Zealand is not going out on a limb, we are merely following the status quo of similar jurisdictions.
Interestingly, safe areas were actually included in the original version of the Abortion Legislation Act which was passed in 2019. However, due to some behind-the-scenes action by David Seymour and a confusing procedural mix up at the final vote in Parliament, safe areas were removed. That’s right, because of a mere technicality, women have had to continue to endure these protests for the past two years.
But wait a minute, why is David “I-love-freedom” Seymour opposed to women exercising their freedom to choose? As is often the case, two rights are at conflict here—the right to choose, and the right to freedom of expression.
The concerns around limiting freedom of expression mainly stem from the inclusion of the word “communicating” in the Bill. Some are worried that this wording is too broad, and sets a dangerous precedent going forward about the Government limiting what people can and can’t say. Pretty much, in Seymour’s view, this is a slippery slope to an Orwellian dystopia. But is that really true? Similar laws in Australia were found to not be a breach of freedom of expression by the country’s highest court.
The point of freedom of expression is to protect individuals from having their political views censored by the state. Pro-life protestors are still more than able to express their views outside the 150m boundary of a safe area, in public places, or on the steps of Parliament. They can lobby Parliament, write petitions and submit on Bills.
Freedom of expression is not intended to protect someone’s ability to harass and block vulnerable individuals from accessing their healthcare. Or, as Violet says, “their right to harass people based on their beliefs does not trump my right to bodily autonomy”.
The Bill is now before the Justice Select Committee, where we will see if any changes are made to the wording. Regardless, with 100 MPs voting in Favour of the Bill at its first reading, and only 15 against, it is likely that safe areas will soon be part of New Zealand law.
Violet hopes this will make a lot of women “feel braver, safer, and carry less guilt about a decision they’re ultimately making for themselves”.
*name changed for anonymity