New law to see protest-free ‘safe zones’ allowed outside abortion clinics

Source: 1News

“Safe zones” can now be established around specific abortion facilities, restricting protest behaviour in those areas, after a proposed law passed its third reading in Parliament on Wednesday evening.

Parliament in Wellington.

The bill passed with 108 votes in favour and 12 against. For Labour, 62 voted in favour and three (Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki, Neru Leavasa, Jamie Strange) against.

For National, 24 were in favour and nine (Simeon Brown, Harete Hipango, Melissa Lee, Simon O’Connor, Chris Penk, Maureen Pugh, Penny Simmonds, Louise Upston, Michael Woodhouse) were opposed.

All MPs in the Green Party, ACT and Te Pāti Māori voted for the bill. Conscience voting meant MPs didn’t have to vote along party lines.

The member’s bill by Labour’s Louisa Wall allowed for the creation of safe areas of up to 150 metres around certain abortion facilities on a case-by-case basis if they requested it.

Once in force, the bill will prohibit the obstruction of people - including advising them to refrain from - seeking or providing abortion services within the safe zone. In that safe area, people will also be banned from filming those groups if it was likely to cause emotional distress, as well as protesting abortion.

Doing so could see someone fined up to $1000. Anti-abortion protests will continue to be legal outside of the safe zones.

Wall said the bill aimed to protect "the safety and well-being and, secondly, the privacy and dignity of women accessing abortion facilities" and abortion practitioners.

"This bill, from my perspective, also represents a commitment to freedom from discrimination for groups that have been historically discriminated against."

Wall said that was because achieving gender equality meant women should be empowered over their bodies and the health services they chose to use without feeling unsafe.

Abortion was decriminalised in 2020. But, that law did not include provisions for safe zones after MPs became confused over proposals put forward by ACT leader David Seymour during the bill’s committee of the House stage. They ended up voting away the sections in the bill that would have made the zones legal.

At the time, Seymour said while he “hates these odious ogres who protest outside abortion clinics”, Parliament shouldn’t make laws to “ban free speech in whole areas”.

For Wall's bill, though, ACT supported the bill through all of its readings. The party's deputy leader Brooke van Velden said a balance had been found between freedom of expression and protecting people accessing the clinics.

During the bill’s second reading, van Velden said that was after the removal of the bill’s use of the word “communicate” - a term the Attorney-General said could be too broad. That was because the original bill would have made it illegal to “communicate” with someone in a safe area if they did so in a way that caused emotional distress.

ACT MP Karen Chhour said she was voting for the bill in its third reading because, if any of her daughters had to make a decision about their pregnancy one day, she wanted them to feel safe.

"Women do not make these decisions lightly. These are decisions that can affect us for the rest of our life, no matter which way we decide to go."

She said strangers had no right to tell others what to do without knowing all of the facts.

Meanwhile, National's Simon O'Connor told the House on Wednesday he continued to oppose the bill.

O'Connor said while people had the right not to be harassed, the proposed law hadn't hit the right balance to protect freedom of expression.

"We seem to have an increasing desire to isolate ourselves as a society from ideas and opinions which we don't like," he said.

He argued that while people seeking abortion or providing it could be at risk of emotional harm without the safe areas, "we should never conflate that, I suggest, with higher levels of harm in violence such as physical harm".

Fellow National MP Simon Watts spoke in support of the proposed law.

He was part of the select committee that heard people speak about the bill. Watts said many personal stories were shared, and the bill would benefit young women in particular.

The bill didn't limit freedoms more than what was necessary, Watts added.

Green MP Jan Logie - who pointed out in 2020 that the vote on Seymour's proposals in the original abortion law might've gotten mixed up - said the new bill was about "getting the job finished".

"Unlike one of the previous speakers who suggested... this [bill] was a fundamental attack on fundamental rights, actually, this has been given a very clear vet by the Attorney-General in terms of being compliant with our Bill of Rights which protects those fundamental rights," Logie said, making reference to O'Connor's remarks.

The Law Commission, whose advice guided the 2020 abortion law, recommended safe areas should only be considered in future if there were issues around access to abortion clinics.

However, Wall's bill said the change in the law was needed because no one should be subjected to protest because they were going to the doctor's.

Andrew Little - who was Justice Minister at the time - also said in 2019 the zones were needed as there was evidence that people accessing abortion services had been harassed and intimidated by anti-abortion protesters.