Tasmanian Abortion Protest Ban Faces Challenge


THE nation's first laws banning protests within 150m of abortion clinics, passed by the Tasmanian parliament yesterday, face a High Court challenge some experts say would succeed.

Christian groups outraged at the restriction on the right to protest yesterday told The Australian they would consider a legal challenge.

Constitutional law expert Michael Stokes believed the protest ban was an infringement of the Constitution's implied right to political communication.

As well, the Catholic Church attacked provisions compelling doctors to give patients information about abortions, claiming they violated the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

"This bill has decriminalised abortion, but criminalised opposition to abortion," said the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous. "It puts Catholic hospitals and all Catholic medical practitioners in an invidious position."

The Labor MP who introduced the legislation, Michelle O'Byrne, believed the measures would survive a challenge and defended them as "incredibly important" in allowing women to obtain abortions without "intimidation".

Under Ms O'Byrne's Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Act, passed by both houses, protests -- even silent vigils -- are banned within 150m of clinics, while doctors who refuse to facilitate an abortion must provide patients with material outlining where they can obtain information about terminations.

"We will be considering our options," said Mark Brown, Tasmanian director of the Australian Christian Lobby. "This does set a precedent and there is a concern about free speech, particularly for those who have a very strong belief abortion is something that they need to speak out about."

Anti-abortion activists said protests outside clinics were rare in Tasmania, and that the legislation went way too far. "That 150m is enormous and could take in churches, cafes and a lot of the CBD," said FamilyVoice Australia spokesman Jim Collins.

Mr Collins said the penalty -- up to a year's jail and a $9750 fine -- applied whether the protest intimidated and harassed someone or was merely holding a prayer vigil or handing out pamphlets. Mr Stokes, an expert in constitutional and administrative law at the University of Tasmania who gave evidence to parliament on the legislation, said he believed the protest ban was likely to be struck out.

"I think that blanket ban on protest is likely to fail if challenged in the High Court," Mr Stokes said. "Abortion is a political issue and this is a restriction (on communication)."

Ms O'Byrne said: "This is an Australian first and it is incredibly important because a woman must be able to access a medical procedure without being subject to intimidation, stigmatisation, vilification or any other form of harassment. This is not about impeding on anyone's right to free expression; it is about protecting women facing an incredibly difficult and complex decision." Source