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Australia: Victorian Parliament Passes Law Establishing Protest Buffer Zone for Abortion Clinics

(Nov. 30, 2015) On November 27, 2015, the Legislative Council (upper house) of the parliament of the Australian state of Victoria passed legislation that prevents protesters from coming within 150 meters (164 yards) of an abortion clinic.  (Abortion Clinic Protest Buffer Zone Law Passes Victorian Upper House, ABC NEWS (Nov. 27, 2015).)

A bill to establish “safe access zones” at clinics providing reproductive health services was originally introduced in August 2015 by Fiona Patten, a member of the Victorian parliament from the Australian Sex Party (a progressive, civil libertarian party established in 2009).  The general proposals were later adopted in a government-sponsored bill introduced by the state’s Health Minister, Jill Hennessy, in October, the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Safe Access Zones) Bill 2015 (Victorian Legislation website; information on the original private member’s bill is also available on that website).  The Victoria Legislative Assembly (lower house) passed this bill on November 12, 2015.

Compared to the original bill, the government bill narrowed the application of the safe access zones to “premises at which abortions are provided” and set out specific prohibited behaviors.  It also included different penalties and provided for broader police enforcement and seizure powers.  (Paige Darby, Research Note on Exclusion Zones in Australia – Update 4 (Parliamentary Library & Information Service, Oct. 2015), Parliament of Victoria website.)

In the bill, as enacted, prohibited behavior is defined as

(a) in relation to a person accessing, attempting to access, or leaving premises at which abortions are provided, besetting, harassing, intimidating, interfering with, threatening, hindering, obstructing or impeding that person by any means; or
(b) subject to subsection (2) [related to employees of the premises] communicating by any means in relation to abortions in a manner that is able to be seen or heard by a person accessing, … [etc.] premises at which abortions are provided and is reasonably likely to cause distress or anxiety; or
(c) interfering with or impeding a footpath, road or vehicle, without reasonable excuse, in relation to premises at which abortions are provided; or
(d) intentionally recording by any means, without reasonable excuse, another person accessing, … [etc.] premises at which abortions are provided, without that other person’s consent; or
(e) any other prescribed behavior. (Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Safe Access Zones) Bill 2015 (Vic) (Safe Access Zones Bill) cl 5 (new § 185B), Victorian Legislation website.)

The penalty for engaging in one of these behaviors within a safe access zone, being an area within a 150 meter radius from an abortion clinic, is 120 penalty units or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months.  (Id. new § 185D.)  The current value of a penalty unit is AU$151.67, making the maximum fine under this provision AU$18,200.40 (about US$13,100).  (Penalties and Values, Victoria Justice and Regulation website (last visited Nov. 27, 2015).)  There is also a separate offense of publishing or distributing a recording of a person accessing (etc.) an abortion clinic, with the same penalties applying.  (Safe Access Zones Bill, new § 185E.)

Prior to the passage of the bill, the Victorian Parliamentary Library noted, “Tasmania is the only Australian jurisdiction which has specific exclusion zones around abortion clinics, while the ACT [Australian Capital Territory] has recently passed legislation that is yet to commence.”  (Darby, supra, at 7.)  It also noted relevant provisions and debate in other countries, including Canada, France, South Africa, and the United States.  (Id. at 9-10.)  The research paper also provided background information on protests at abortion clinics in Melbourne and related legal action by a clinic that was initiated in 2014 and determined by the Supreme Court of Victoria in August 2015.  (Id. at 2-3.)