WA parliament considers laws to enshrine safe access to abortion

By Melissa Coade

Thursday May 27, 2021

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The Western Australian government has made a second attempt to introduce laws that will ensure women have safe and private access to abortion health services in the state, bringing it in line with other states and territories across the country. 

The proposed law intends to protect patients seeking abortion health services from harassment or intimidation by protestors by creating a ‘safe access zone’. If enacted, the 24/7 zone will apply to the premises of an abortion provides and any area within 150 metres of the boundary. 

On Wednesday a joint statement issued by the deputy premier and minister for health Roger Cook and women’s interests minister Simon McGurk said that the legislation had to be re-introduced after it was unable to pass in the Upper House before the March election. 

Abortion is a common procedure in Australia and according to data from the WA Department of Health over 7,800 procedures were performed in the state each year between 2016-18.

The ministers said that a 2020 report by the Health found there was overwhelming support for safe access zones (about 70% of 4,184 respondents) to be established in the state.

The bill also prohibits a person from publishing and distributing recordings of another person accessing premises at which abortions are provided, if the recording could identify that person, without their consent or reasonable excuse,” the ministers said.

Behaviour that breaches the Public Health Amendment (Safe Access Zones) Bill 2021 can attract fines of up to $12,000 and 12 months imprisonment. The new law includes prohibitions on harassing, intimidating or threatening patients as they were visiting clinics; using any form of communication to discuss abortion that could be seen or heard by patients and was reasonably likely to cause then distress or anxiety; and recording their visit without any reasonable excuse or their consent. 

Efforts to impede footpaths or roads to protest abortions will also be banned under the amended laws. 

The minister for women’s interests said the new measures were reasonable and would improve the sense of security that women were entitled to when accessing abortion services.

This reasonable measure is already successfully helping women in other jurisdictions with appropriate access to legal medical procedures, so it is well and truly time to bring WA into line with the rest of the country,” McGurk said.

“In moving demonstrators away from the immediate vicinity of clinics, safe access zones provide privacy and safety to staff and those accessing abortion and other services, protecting them from experiencing undue anxiety or distress as they enter and leave the premises.”

Cook said that the WA government was committed to ensuring women and their supports were treated with compassion, respect and privacy when seeking to undergo the medical procedure. 

“Women deserve to access health services without fear of judgement or harassment, and staff who provide care at the health services also need protecting,” he added.

In 1998 the legal status of abortion in the state was clarified under amendments to the criminal law and other health laws. Women in WA can seek the medical procedure up to 19 weeks of gestation. Terminating pregnancies by at least 20 weeks requires the consensus of two medical practitioners from a panel convened by the Health Minister that the mother or foetus has a severe medical condition.

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