Women seeking abortions 'harassed by protesters to point of suicide'
Anti-abortion activists hold placards infront of the US Supreme Court during the annual March for Life (AFP)

Women trying to get an abortion in Albury, New South Wales, have ended up self harming or even attempting suicide because of harassment from protesters outside the only clinic offering the procedure in the area, health workers have said.

For more than a decade evangelical protesters calling themselves Helpers of God’s Precious Infants have picketed the Fertility Control Clinic in Albury every Thursday, the day of the week terminations are performed.

The protesters’ actions have caused such concern that health professionals have now formed their own group, Rights to Privacy.

A social worker, who did not want to be named because she has been frequently targeted by protesters, said women had been intimidated about attending the clinic for too long.

“Many women end up travelling to Melbourne or Sydney for the procedure because they can’t face the protesters,” she told Guardian Australia.

“Some teenage girls do self harm because they don’t feel safe going to the clinic here, or they’re worried they will be identified by the protesters and the whole city will know about it.

“They don’t have the resources to go to Melbourne or Sydney, their parents may not know, and they are so stressed and traumatised, they attempt suicide.”

Helpers of God’s Precious Infants also protests outside clinics in Sydney, Melbourne and other cities.

But because Albury, in regional NSW, is a smaller city with only one publicly funded women’s health clinic, the issues are exacerbated.

One woman described how she panicked as the protesters began to approach. “I couldn’t take a step forward,” the woman, who did not want to be identified, said.

“I panicked very badly; my anxiety was so heightened I hyperventilated. I was so distressed knowing they were going to race at me.”

She said the group surrounded her and blocked her entrance to the clinic, telling her she was making the wrong decision and holding up graphic images of dead babies.

“I finally responded that I had no choice, that my foetus was likely both deformed and brain damaged, and that if I continued with the pregnancy that I’d likely leave four children motherless,” she said. “I was told that I should choose death. This ... made me hysterical.”

A retired obstetrician, Pieter Mourik, is the president of Rights to Privacy, which formed earlier this year and is co-ordinating a forum to discuss how to protect the rights of women to medical privacy.

Mourik said women were being filmed by protesters and that their names were being recorded, shattering their privacy.

“We have a huge problem here in Albury, where the only clinic that performs early terminations of pregnancy for a total catchment population of over 300,000 people is targeted by a small group,” Mourik said.

“A study conducted by a fertility clinic in East Melbourne found 78% of their patients were more traumatised by anti-abortion protesters than getting a termination.”

Anna von Marburg, the co-ordinator for Albury Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, did not directly answer questions from Guardian Australia about claims women were being driven to self harm or being psychologically traumatised.

But she said the group had displayed “exemplary behaviour and incredible courage in the face of very aggressive tactics by abortion advocates”.

“The abortion clinic, abortion activists, police and pedestrians have hundreds of hours of footage of the [group] and have never been able to show evidence of any harassment, blocking, or violence,” she said.

She also dismissed Mourik’s assessment that staff were stressed as a result of the protests.

“Society should feel stress and anxiety that doctors and nurses are using surgical means to solve a largely psychosocial problem,” Von Marburg, who also runs the local Catholic bookstore, said.

“We believe that we can offer a solution that does not involve the destruction of human life.”

When asked why her group could not compromise and carry out protests down the street from the clinic, Von Marburg replied: “Why doesn’t Occupy Wall Street move to Kansas?”

Police were powerless to stop the protests, Mourik said, because they were not breaking the law.

Jacinda Woodhead is completing her PhD on abortion politics through Victoria University and recently spent time in Albury. She found the small but vocal group of anti-abortion protesters were placing a huge strain on clinic staff as well as the women attending.

“Staff feel they have to be very watchful. They look out blinds to see if patients are approaching the clinic so they can go outside and escort them in,” she said.

“It’s a small protest group, but they’re pretty influential because a lot of retirees are involved,” Woodhead said. “So they have a lot of time on their hands and a lot of money.

“A poll in Victoria found about 8% of people don’t believe in abortion, and this is about the same percentage as nationally. Such a small group of people shouldn’t be dominating the public discourse and they shouldn’t be able to do what they do at people’s places of work.”

Abortion is the second most common surgical procedure in Australia, with one third of women having a termination in their lifetime.

But Tasmania, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory are the only states to have fully decriminalised it. Tasmania is the only jurisdiction where it is illegal to protest at or near an abortion clinic.

Susan Fahey is a lawyer with Women’s Legal Service Tasmania and was involved in writing the state’s Reproductive Health Act. She said she had been contacted by staff at the Albury clinic for advice on how to help women access termination safely.

“As much as Tasmania has a reputation for being conservative, at the heart of our society is a strong ‘live and let live’ mentality,” Fahey said. “So because Tasmanians hadn’t seen anti-abortion protesters much before, as soon as they did, it created a massive backlash because they didn’t like women being shamed.

“In Melbourne and NSW though, I think people are more immune to what’s going on, they’ve come to expect the protesters,” she said. “Because the community as a whole aren’t engaging them, it means they’re also not being stopped.”

She said it was “baffling” that in 2014, vocal minorities were able to get their way. Dr Susie Allanson, a clinical psychologist with the Fertility Control Clinic in Melbourne, agreed.

She was working at the clinic in 2001 when a security guard was murdered by an anti-abortion protester . She put down the continuing protests to three main factors: “The power of the Catholic church, sexism, and the stigma and silencing associated with discussions about women’s reproductive rights.”

“We seem to have to go through the same fights again and again,” she said. “We’re making ground, but it’s so slow.”

The clinic has taken legal action against Melbourne City council for failing to uphold their obligation under the Health and Wellbeing Act to address public nuisance. The case is currently going through the Supreme Court.

In NSW, Greens Legislative Council MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi has introduced the first ever bill to decriminalise abortion. She hopes it will be passed next year.

“Abortion law reform is not going to be easy,” she said.

“But I am looking forward to working with many in the community to persuade politicians to catch up with a strong majority of Australians who support access to legal and safe abortion.”

She also believes women should not have to face protesters when accessing healthcare.

“Of course, free speech is fundamental to our democracy in Australia but it cannot be used as an excuse to intimidate and harass women who are accessing a women’s health service,” Faruqi said.

“Abortion law reform and establishing exclusion zones outside women’s health clinics are often not a priority on the agenda of male dominated parliaments, both here in NSW and around Australia.”

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