Safe access zones prevent the targeted harassment of people who decide to receive abortion care.

The Law Commission Report considers, then rejects the idea of safe access zones for New Zealand, saying they have not been shown to be necessary.

But this is not because Kiwis are so nice – it’s structural. Because of the current law around licences, most abortions occur in hospital settings, where it is difficult to target people seeking abortion care.

If the Ministry of Health wants to improve access, and intends to rely of community-based clinics and doctors’ surgeries to do so, they would do well to consider that such clinics may be reluctant to provide care, knowing they will soon have a group of old men with gory signs right outside their door. The Government would do well to consider providing a solution in the new legislation.

Safe access zones do not mean anti-choice protests would be banned. Rather, the location of protests would be regulated. They would be free to protest wherever they want, except within the safe access zone.

Freedom of expression is not an absolute right. Some human rights are absolute, meaning their breach can never be justified, like the right not to be tortured, and the right not to be enslaved. Freedom of expression can be subject to a balancing exercise against the rights of others not to be harassed.

Freedom of expression is also self-reflective. This means your right has been properly exercised when you have said your piece, or carried your sign – it does not require the state to supply you with the audience of your choice.

Let’s say you believe vaccinations cause autism. It is not part of your freedom of expression to accost someone on the way to get their children vaccinated.

It is open to the state to balance the rights of private people seeking private health care against those who want to disturb and confront them at a vulnerable time. The state has a valid interest in protecting people from such harassment while they are going about their business.

Would preventing this kind of harassment even be controversial if the people bearing the brunt of it were not women seeking abortion care? Pregnant women who are seeking health care our society has stigmatised for years?

The protesters apparently hope the rest of society agrees with them that these women do not deserve the protection of the law. Over the years, in places like the USA and Australia, police seem to have agreed with the protesters that the usual laws against assault and harassment don’t apply in the case of these women. That usually doesn’t change until a specific law, like one creating safe access zones, is passed.

It is long past time receiving abortion care, like receiving any other kind of health care, is seen for the private act it is, and protected accordingly.

Harassment in Thames

For a number of years, protesters from Voice for Life picketed outside Thames Hospital. They only appeared on days when the abortion service was seeing patients.

ALRANZ member Scott Summerfield got tired of seeing them. So he put together a meeting, open to anyone interested in making a stand, and invited some speakers, including Hon Jan Logie MP of the Greens, and Terry Bellamak, ALRANZ national president.

The group began a counter protest action the next morning. People in Thames expressed a lot of support. Women and girls walking past said when they first saw the counter protesters, they braced themselves to be stared at and feel judged again, thinking it was the other guys.

When they realised this was a pro-reproductive rights group, they relaxed and stopped to chat, and thank them for being there. 

Below is the speech Terry Bellamak delivered at the first meeting of the counter protesters group in Thames on 4 August. 

Good evening. Thanks for coming out tonight, and thanks for inviting me to Thames. My name is Terry Bellamak, and I’m president of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand, Aotearoa’s oldest and largest reproductive rights organisation.

We are all here tonight to talk about the harassment of abortion patients, something folks in Thames know something about.

But first I’d like to read you a little something I came across when I was reading about protests outside clinics in the states.

This one is from a woman in Maine:

 “I was on a bus on my way to my Planned Parenthood appointment when I texted my friend, “I hope there are protesters outside so I know it’s the right building.” I was joking! I never thought I’d see any and so was absolutely shocked to find a dozen split in two groups, lining the entrance to the clinic. They were waving posters and yelling, and for a moment, I even considered skipping my appointment. I was worried about my safety — I’ve heard about the crazy things these people do. The irony is that I was going to get birth control pills to prevent having to make the choice about an abortion in the first place.  

As I started to walk towards the clinic, one woman followed me all the way to the door, saying, “Have mercy on your baby!” My heart was racing — I was actually scared, but then I saw two women flanking the door, wearing pink vests. One smiled at me, and I kept my eyes locked on her until I finally made it inside. The first thing I asked was, “How do I become one of the women in the pink vest?” I wanted to channel my rage into something positive. That’s how I became a greeter. I now wear a pink vest and do my best to lock eyes with other women walking through that terrifying corridor. Ignoring them is the best defence. Their anger says way more about them than the women they’re harassing.”

And this one is from a woman in Colorado:

“I was the first appointment that day and noticed a few men, all in their 50s or 60s, milling around the parking lot when we pulled in. Once we got out of the car, one made a beeline for us with a fistful of pamphlets. My aunt said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and he got irate, screaming, “How can you do this? You’re killing your baby to continue on your whore lifestyle, you jezebel!’ Suddenly we were surrounded by five other men — that’s when the baby-doll parts starting hitting us. 

They had a box filled with torn apart baby dolls covered with red paint. All three of us were hit — in the head, chest, torso. As they were pelting us, they yelled, “This is what you’re doing to your baby! Look at the street! It’s strewn with the blood of your baby. That’s your baby scattered across the street!” It was surreal and terrifying at once. And we still had to cross a wide street to enter the clinic. Then they shouted at my aunt, “Grandma, why are you letting her do this? Tell her to give her baby up for adoption!” My aunt responded, “First of all, I’m not old enough to be a grandma. Second, come talk to me when you have a uterus and a vagina.” 

There is so much in these stories to pull apart, but I just want to make a few points about these accounts:

First, the patients.

They are just trying to access the health care they want, and suddenly they find themselves in a situation where they don’t feel safe.

This is not surprising given that every person who looks female has probably experienced street harassment – and lots of folks who look male as well. We have probably all been whistled at, honked at, yelled at by guys demanding that we sit on their dicks, or ordering us to take our fat asses out of sight.

The protesters outside those clinics were doing the same thing – which is why women experience it in the same way as street harassment.

A study came out in September 2015 from Aston University in Birmingham in the UK, that looked into how patients perceived abortion protesters. Not surprisingly, they discovered patients found protesters’ conduct intimidating and intrusive, and it made them anxious and fearful. Just like the other kind of street harassment.

The study also found that even when the protesters were silent, patients felt their presence was intrusive and threatening. Which is also not surprising. Have you ever seen a bunch of guys outside the corner dairy, and they just silently watch you as you walk by? It feels weird, and not a little intimidating.

Because keep in mind, these patients have probably lived as women for a long time, and have been taught from an early age that danger is everywhere and you always need to watch out. Women develop pretty good radar for noticing when people are focusing on us. Protesters’ ping this radar like mad, even if they are silent. You can still feel them judging you.

And it goes without saying that very few patients actually change their mind about going through with the abortion based on an encounter with the radical anti-choice busybodies. Even anti-choicers acknowledge this fact.

Second, abortion stigma.

Protest activity is fuelled by abortion stigma. Without it, without that culturally embedded idea that abortion is a thing apart, a thing that’s kind of icky, they would look totally foolish out there. Like if they protested treatment for breast cancer. Everyone would instantly recognise that as an extremely weird attack on women, at least on the women who suffer from breast cancer. But breast cancer, while it’s about women, it’s not about sex. And there lies the heart of abortion stigma. It’s a form of slut shaming, and it’s really good for them, because outside abortion clinics they can slut shame without getting laughed at or endangering themselves. If they tried to call out the young women on Courteney Place or Queen Street on a Saturday night, they would be laughed at, and possibly mugged. But abortion clinics are great- open during business hours, staffed by women, patronised by women. And while they might hate women, they don’t fear them.

But in addition to abortion stigma fueling harassment, it also goes the other way round- harassment fuels stigma. For people in the group Katha Pollitt calls the muddled middle, people who count themselves neither pro nor anti reproductive rights, seeing a bunch of protesters with gory signs is a reminder of the controversy, a reminder of the stigma. Next time they hear or read about abortion, the image of those protesters will be in the back of their mind.

Abortion harassment and abortion stigma are very closely connected. In fact, you could say abortion harassment is weaponised abortion stigma. Sometimes the weapons are words, and sometimes they are guns, like the gun that shot Dr Tiller in Wichita. It’s abortion stigma directed against particular people in the act of exercising their reproductive rights, or helping others to do so.

Third, the protesters.

Well, they get a culturally sanctioned way to harass women and not get in trouble for it. I’m not going to try too hard to get into their heads right now, it doesn’t seem like a very nice place.

It’s hard to believe we are here in 2016, still talking about radical anti-choice busybodies yelling at patients getting health care.

Because it’s the twenty-first century. Everybody is free to make their own moral choices. Women are free to plan their lives and fulfil their goals. Abortion is a responsible option. What’s responsible about bringing a child into the world that you can’t care for properly?