Tuesday 19th June, 2018
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Abortion and the 'free speech' myth

Independent Australia - Wednesday 13th June, 2018

Safe access to abortion clinics has finally been mandated in NSW and is being debated in Queensland, while "free speech" continues to be used as an excuse for harassment, writes Jacinta Coehlo.

THE NSW GOVERNMENT passed the Summary Offences Amendment (Safe Access to Reproductive Health Clinics) Bill on Friday, 8 June, that enables "safe access zones" for women visiting abortion clinics.

The Bill will mean that pro-life protesters cannot harass women entering these clinics - at least within a 150-metre radius.

This is a small victory for women who choose to access these services. What is surprising about the Bill being passed was the lack of support from the NSW Minister for Women, Tanya Davies. Davies cited the reason behind her decision was to give protesters the opportunity to "offer support and information" to these women.

That reasoning is unsatisfactory. If Davies is concerned about the "information" that women need to have regarding abortions, then she is misinformed about the actual procedure of abortion in NSW.

The current procedure for women who choose to abort consists of counselling prior to making that final decision. At that counselling session, they would be adequately informed of all their options. Therefore, the need for "information" at the clinics is redundant. It also undermines women who have made their choice regarding their own bodies and regards the opinions of complete strangers too highly.

It is naive to think that protesters who spend their spare time hanging around abortion clinics have benevolent intentions to simply give "information". A more accurate description of their behaviour would be that they regularly harass and intimidate women choosing to visit these clinics. The protest signs usually have harrowing pictures of foetuses and other distressing images. These women are subjected to verbal abuse regarding their decisions. The protesters would be unaware of the individual circumstances of the women or even if they were aware, the decision is not theirs to make.

Abortion is - and always has been - a feminist issue. Men do not get abortions. It is about women's right to choose what to do with their own bodies, which is why it is quite disappointing when the NSW Minister for Women doesn't support it. But it is naive to think that being a woman automatically qualifies as being a feminist. Davies is not alone. The NSW Family and Community Services Minister Pru Goward also did not support the Bill, citing her reason as the right to "free speech".

Free speech has an American ring to it - it sounds like a "right" - and for Americans it is. If you believe that Australia has free speech, you are sadly mistaken. In Australia, we do not have free speech. We don't even have a bill of rights. We have a diluted, implied freedom of communication when it comes to politics. That's as close as we get to "freedom of speech". So the next time an abuser protests freedom of speech as an excuse, you can gently remind them that they do not have freedom of speech. At least legally speaking. Sorry.

Abortion usually falls into the grey area of being a political issue. It is a highly contested issue, but to label it "political" only suits those who wish to protest and harass women undergoing these procedures. The jurisdiction of a woman's uterus belongs to that woman only. A uterus alone is not political. So freedom of speech (also known as harassment in this context) does not apply.

Free speech can also be used to give a platform to anti-vaccination advocates. Kent Heckenlively, Polly Tommey and Suzanne Humphries were all denied access to Australia due to their views on vaccinations. One could argue that this is an attack on free speech. That all people should be "adequately informed" on their choice to vaccinate their children (or not).

The notion of free speech is often used in contexts where the person who wants to speak has abusive or potentially harmful views. "Free speech" is used as a mask for hate speech, ignorant ideologies or the right to insult and abuse someone in person or over the internet. The free speech argument was used as a reason for removing Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Freedom of speech is only relevant when it comes to freedom of political communication, therefore, we are not as similar to our American cousins as we may think.

You can follow Jacinta Coelho on Twitter @jacintacoelho8.

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