Labor and Greens narrowly defeat government motion opposing abortion exclusion zones

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Jenny Noyes

Anti-abortion protesters chant outside a Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne.

Anti-abortion protesters chant outside a Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne. Photo: Rebecca Hallas

A federal government motion opposing the introduction of buffer zones around abortion clinics has been narrowly defeated in the Senate.

The motion, introduced by LNP Senator Matthew Canavan on Monday night, argued that exclusion zones aimed at preventing protesters from harassing women attending abortion clinics are an attack on free speech. 

The Victorian government has recently pledged its support for a bill that would ban protests within 150m of an abortion clinic, in a deal with Sex Party MP Fiona Patten. Protesters who harass women and staff attending the clincs within this zone would be subject to harsh penalties. 

Nationals senator Matthew Canavan.

Nationals senator Matthew Canavan. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Similar legislation has already been passed in the ACT, while in NSW Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi is pushing for exclusion zones in addition to decriminalising abortion. 

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In a recent Daily Life op ed, Faruqi wrote that "Creating exclusion zones would provide safe access and peace of mind for women walking into a clinic for a medical procedure. This is not about stopping people from having different views or expressing them but ensuring that everyone's right to medical privacy with respect and dignity is enforced."

Despite this – and the fact that the right to protest has never been unconditional if it threatens the rights and safety of others – conservative and anti-choice activists continue to argue that it's a 'freedom of speech' issue.

The motion put forward by Nationals Senator Matthew Canavan stated: "The nation has fought wars for democracy, for freedom of speech and for the right to protest.

"The attempts by the Greens and their supporters to introduce legislation banning peaceful protest from public areas is an attack on a fundamental right and should be opposed."

Labor joined with the Greens to defeat the motion. Greens Senator Larissa Waters said it was "alarming" that the Senate was only just able to defeat the motion. 

"Women must be able to exercise their legal right to medical privacy and their human right to make decisions about their own bodies without being harassed," Waters said. 

"Senator Canavan ... has tried to pass this off as a freedom of speech issue but this is an issue of safe, accessible healthcare and women's rights. 

"Anyone who disagrees with abortion can voice their beliefs but they should not be able to intimidate women outside abortion clinics.