Behind the buffer zones

Pro-life group The Helpers maintains a prayer vigil and protest outside an East Melbourne abortion clinic. But does it offer kindly assistance or harass and intimidate patients? Claudia Alp investigates.

It’s early morning outside a building in East Melbourne where three people are praying quietly around a wooden cross. A fourth tentatively approaches passers-by, smiling and offering them pamphlets, while a security guard watches intently with crossed arms.

The double-storey establishment is the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic, which provides surgical and medical abortions as well as contraception, STI testing and pap tests.

Those praying outside are members of the pro-life group, Helpers of God’s Precious Infants or The Helpers.

In August, Sex Party MP Fiona Patten introduced a private member’s Safe Access Zone Bill, into State Parliament’s Upper House to prevent women being “harassed and abused” by such pro-life groups outside abortion clinics.

“What it aims to do is amend the Health and Well-being Act to provide, effectively, buffer zones around clinics that provide terminations or abortions,” she said in an interview.

“It gives [clients] the opportunity to have 150 metres going up to the clinic where they’re not going to be harassed or intimidated.”

The State Government announced it would support the move, with Health Minister Jill Hennessy saying it would introduce its own Bill, largely based on Patten’s, into the Lower House by the end of the year.

But according to Christine Roman*, a mother assisted by The Helpers, the labels of harassment and intimidation are undeserved. “It’s not what the media or the MPs are saying,” she said. “From my experience, they were so kind.”

Roman faced financial difficulty after the premature birth of her first child who needed specialist care costing up to $60,000. She was shocked to discover the second pregnancy.

Being ineligible for benefits and in debt from their first child’s hospitalisation, Roman and her husband didn’t think they could afford another child. “We thought the only solution was abortion,” she said.

When she arrived at the clinic for the procedure, she broke down. Two women approached the car and she told them that she wanted the baby but didn’t know what to do.

The Helpers took Ms Roman and her husband to a cafe and offered assistance. “They told me if I wanted to I could still go to the clinic, but if I wanted their help, to give them one week,” she said. “They paid all the hospital bills, private insurance, rates, electricity, everything.”

Doctor Susie Allanson, a clinical psychologist at the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic, said she feels deeply concerned for women trying to access legal health services at the clinic.

“Some [patients] become very distressed. Others are quite resilient and they can just brush it off. Others become quite angry, some partners especially,” She said. “Women are not feeling safe in a place where women need to feel safe.”

Trudi Arashi, a Helper for 10 years, described an average day outside the clinic. “We would be standing there and praying and if women do approach the clinic we approach them and offer them anything that they need to keep their baby,” she said. “Offering help is definitely not harassment and we’re certainly not abusing them.”

With teary eyes, Arashi described “numerous occasions” on which she’d been assaulted outside the clinic. “I’ve been spat on. I’ve had a cigarette butt put on my forehead. I’ve been pushed onto the road.”

She said that implementing buffer zones would contradict democracy. “If they implement buffer zones, they’d have to extend that to any area of protest,” she said.

Patten said it was no longer an issue of free speech. “This is about stopping someone from being harassed and intimidated when they are making a difficult decision.”

But Roman maintained that The Helpers do not “harass” or “intimidate”. “They don’t force you, but if you want them, they’re there.”

The Helpers are currently assisting two women financially, providing them with a safe place to stay, and paying a student’s university fees, Ms Arashi said.

In August the East Melbourne clinic lost a Victorian Supreme Court bid to force the Melbourne City Council to implement laws to move pro-life protesters on.