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Australian pro-lifers argue abortion clinic buffer zones violate freedom of speech


Crowds at the March for Life in Washington DC on Jan 27 2017. Photo credit: Jeff Bruno 22 CNA

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Canberra, Australia, Oct 9, 2018 CNA/EWTN News.- Two pro-life activists are challenging Australian “buffer zone” laws in the country’s high court in Canberra. The laws in the states of Victoria and Tasmania bar any protests within 150 meters (nearly 500 feet) of a clinic or hospital that performs abortions.

The Victorian case was brought by Kathleen Clubb, a pro-life campaigner who was fined $5,000 in 2016 for “communicating about abortion” to a woman using an abortion clinic. The same year, Graham Preston was fined $3,000 for violating Tasmania’s similar buffer zone law.

A doctor was quoted in the Guardian as saying that she believed that protests outside abortion clinics left women intimidated and with “dangerous implications for their health.”

But the two plaintiffs are arguing that the laws violate their freedom of speech, since they prohibit political speech in a place where “communications on [abortion] are likely to occur and be most politically resonant.”

“The prohibition applies whether or not discomfort is caused, and irrespective of the political significance of the communication in the circumstances,” Clubb said as quoted by the Guardian. “The issue raised by this appeal is whether a prohibition of that kind is compatible with a constitution which protects a freedom of political communication. This court should answer that question no.”

A lawyer for the protestors argued Oct. 9 that because there are already laws in both states that protect against harassment and intimidation, the only further effect of the buffer zone laws is essentially to ban peaceful protest. He argued that Australia grants an implied freedom to political speech.

The governments of Victoria and Tasmania contend that the laws are designed to allow women to access legal medical services. The Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory, and New South Wales have similar buffer zone laws. A bill under consideration in the state of Queensland would create 150-meter buffer zones there as well.

Buffer zones are being debated elsewhere, including in the United Kingdom. British Home Secretary Sajid Javid rejected proposals for buffer zones around abortion clinics throughout England and Wales as disproportionate in a Sept. 13 decision, after finding that most abortion protests are peaceful and passive. Local jurisdictions in England and Wales are able to establish their own buffer zones.

Javid added that there were “relatively few” reports of “aggressive activities”, and noted that in 2017, only 36 of the 363 hospitals and clinics in England and Wales that offer abortions have experienced pro-life demonstrations near their facilities.

In the United States, three states have passed buffer zone laws: Colorado, Montana, and most recently Massachusetts in 2014.

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