Time to protect abortion services from harassment

In this podcast Deb Stanfield interviews Liz Beddoe about changes to the abortion law that will make it possible to set up safe areas around specific abortion services.

What is the current issue?

In February 2020 the New Zealand parliament passed legislation that removed abortion from the Crimes Act. Changes were made to the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act that had been in place since 1977. It legalised abortion and simplified the process of getting abortion health care.

The Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion (Safe Areas) Amendment Bill 2020 (the bill) amends the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977 (the Act). The bill is a member’s bill introduced by Louisa Wall MP (Labour Party).

The bill aims to “protect the safety and well-being, and respect the privacy and dignity, of women accessing abortion facilities and practitioners providing and assisting with abortion services.” The bill:

  • provides a regulation-making power to set up safe areas around specific abortion facilities, on a case-by-case basis; and
  • defines the type of behaviour that is prohibited in safe areas.

Clause 5 inserts new sections 13A to 13C.
New section 13A defines prohibited behaviour as:

  • intimidating, interfering with, or obstructing a protected person (protected person is defined in clause 13A(3)) with the intention of frustrating the purpose for which the protected person is in the safe area, or,
  • in a manner that an ordinary reasonable person would know would cause emotional distress to a protected person
  • communicating with, or visually recording, a person in a manner that an ordinary reasonable person would know would cause emotional distress to a protected person.

What’s the impact of protests outside abortion clinics?

The image above of  group of people standing on the footpath looking across the road at an abortion service with a banner and holding brochures. They don’t look too intimidating do they? I talked to those people and they think that they are harmless and just “peacefully praying”. But it’s not harmless. Many people, including me, regard unwanted prayer as offensive and intrusive. They are intruding on the privacy of individuals.

It’s a form of gendered harassment and it causes emotional harm.

(Lowe & Hayes, 2018)

By allowing it to continue we are normalising behaviour that harms people seeking legal health care – would we allow that in any other setting? It’s also too easy for this abusive behaviour to escalate. Praying is one thing, calling out, using language and misleading images, and in some countries physical assaults, occur. And at various times this has happened in Aotearoa.

Harassing people often includes providing links to services in a misleading way. “We will help you” implying support and money to help a pregnant person who is in dire straits. This practical help is an illusion. These services have one aim: to stop people from choosing to terminate a pregnancy if that feels like the best decision for them.

At the moment almost all abortions in Aotearoa New Zealand take place in clinics within large DHB hospitals, although the law changes last year allowed for more primary care settings. It is more difficult for protesters to identify abortion patients at a large hospital but care in small clinics (e.g., Family Planning, PHO primary care hubs) or potentially just GPs prescribing EMA medication would potentially make it much easier for antis to target the facilities and people arriving to have an abortion. The potential for much greater harassment is there.

Is there any research on this topic?

Very briefly, as there is a significant body of literature on this topic, recent research reports that religiously motivated harassment is ineffective in preventing abortions. While anti-abortion protests may not be that effective in changing people’s minds, Fiala, Özogul, and Kernreiter (2020) found that patients experienced “profound emotional stress caused by the actions of the demonstrators. They felt harassed, threatened and insecure” (p. 229). Similarly, Foster, Persaud, and LaRoche (2020) reported that “seeing and interacting with protesters was at times unsettling, stigmatizing, and frustrating” (p.308). Clinic patients who were struggling with their decision and those who made the decision because of health issues or in a context of family violence found these encounters particularly distressing. Earlier research by Ostrach and Cheyney (2014) found that for low-income people seeking abortion care, the protests were extremely stressful and another layer of obstacles to accessing the support they needed. During this study research participants had felt the need to cancel or reschedule abortion appointments, “citing a reluctance to walk through the gauntlet of yelling, shoving protesters as their reason” (p.1015).

Despite changes to the law in Aotearoa New Zealand barriers to care still pose significant challenges to some rural and low-income people where they be transport difficulties or very limited services, or where for safety they may wish to travel away from their town. ‘Conscientious objectors’ in primary health settings also cause distress, even though they are obliged to explain how to access the contact details of the closest provider. If they don’t, patients can complain to the Health and Disability Commissioner but all these things cause delays and more stress.

What can I do?

Safe abortion care is a major element of reproductive justice and it is a social work issue (Beddoe, Hayes, & Steele, 2019).

Please sign the petition for safe access areas:

https://our.actionstation.org.nz/petitions/safe-areas-everywhere-from-assent

Write a submission in support of the bill:

Submissions on the amendment are now open until 28 April and I want to encourage social workers and others to make a submission.

https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/sc/make-a-submission/document/53SCHE_SCF_BILL_99649/contraception-sterilisation-and-abortion-safe-areas

Information about abortion and service providers

https://www.health.govt.nz/your-health/healthy-living/sexual-health/considering-abortion

References 

Beddoe, L., Hayes, T., & Steele, J. (2019). Social justice for all!’ The relative silence of social work in abortion rights advocacy. Critical and Radical Social Work, 8(1), 7-24.

Fiala, C., Özogul, J., & Kernreiter, J. (2020). Experiences of women accessing an abortion clinic confronted by religiously motivated demonstrators: a pilot study. The European Journal of Contraception & Reproductive Health Care, 25(3), 228-230. doi:10.1080/13625187.2020.1748185

Foster, A. M., Persaud, M. S., & LaRoche, K. J. (2020). “I didn’t doubt my choice, but I felt bad”: A qualitative exploration of Canadian abortion patients’ experiences with protesters. Contraception, 102(5), 308-313. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.contraception.2020.06.001

Lowe, P., & Hayes, G. (2018). Anti-abortion clinic activism, civil inattention and the problem of gendered harassment. Sociology, 53(2), 330-346. doi:10.1177/0038038518762075

Ostrach, B., & Cheyney, M. (2014). Navigating social and institutional obstacles: Low-income women seeking abortion. Qualitative Health Research, 24(7), 1006-1017. doi:10.1177/1049732314540218

Previous RSW post:  Liz Beddoe and Eileen Joy: Time for social work to make a clear stand for abortion law reform

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