No doubt, last night’s defeat of abortion law reform provisions that would have created safe zones around abortion clinics will be portrayed, by some, as a victory for free speech. It isn’t. It was a victory for bigotry and intimidation directed at women, when they are at their most vulnerable. Australia, not usually known for its radical defence of women’s rights, has already passed laws to create safe zones around abortion clinics , and last year the High Court of Australia dismissed a challenge to the Safe Access Zones Act that had been based largely on ‘freedom of expression’ grounds.
Some highly relevant passages of that Aussie judgment begin with why the need exists for the safe access zones in the first place, and why such zones are entirely consistent with the wider principle that healthcare services need to be accessible in conditions that protect the dignity of the patients, and the medical staff involved:
The Solicitor-General for Victoria submitted that the activities of protesters had previously created an environment of “conflict, fear and intimidation” outside abortion clinics, and that these activities were harmful to both patients and staff in a number of ways. .. In particular, it was said that existing laws did not adequately protect women and staff against the effects of these activities.
To repeat : what is clear from the state submissions and from the Australian High Court judgement itself, is that the key point at issue with the safe zones was not the right to political speech and protest – rather, it was whether the protection of the dignity of the women and staff being targeted was consistent with the stated principles of the public health system. As the Victorian Solicitor- General submitted :
“It is unreasonable for anti-abortion groups to target women at the very time and place when they are seeking to access a health service, or to target health service staff. The impact of such actions on these women must be understood within the context of their personal circumstances. Many are already feeling distressed, anxious and fearful about an unplanned pregnancy, or a procedure that they are about to undergo. To be confronted by anti-abortion groups at this time is likely to exacerbate these feelings. It is intimidating and demeaning for women to have to run the gauntlet of anti-abortion groups outside health services.”
Generally speaking, the High Court noted, to force a political message upon another person is inconsistent with the human dignity of that person. While there is an interest to be protected in fostering free expression and political comment by members of the community, the Court argued that this is not to be interpreted as putting an obligation on anyone else in the community to receive such messages. Moreover, the Court ruled, a safe zone does not unfairly and unequally put at a disadvantage the views of the anti-abortion movement. In terms of content, the Court pointed out, the safe zone is completely viewpoint neutral. No views about abortion (pro or con) can be expressed within them.
Nor, in context, was this a case where freedom of expression was being curtailed merely to spare’ hurt feelings” or “ discomfort”.
The tendentious suggestion that the communication prohibition might be engaged by conduct apt to cause no more than “discomfort” or “hurt feelings” calls to mind suggestions to the effect that political speech cannot be truly free if it can be silenced for no reason other than to spare the feelings of those spoken about. Suggestions to that effect may have some attraction in the context of public conflict between commercial or industrial rivals or in the context of a political debate between participants who choose to enter public controversy. But they have no attraction in a context in which persons attending to a private health issue, while in a vulnerable state by reason of that issue, are subjected to behaviour apt to cause them to eschew the medical advice and assistance that they would otherwise be disposed to seek and obtain.
In New Zealand, these same rights to dignity have been enshrined in the Medical Council Code of Rights.
Arguably, abortion clinic safe zones are an important ( and in the circumstances, a necessary) element in protecting what the current abortion law reforms are defining as being a medical procedure, and not something that any longer falls under the provisions of the Crimes Act. This failure to create safe zones around clinics has created a disturbing gap in the medical ethics dimension of our public health system.
Obviously, all of this may now seem to be beside the point. Yes, women in New Zealand are now going to be required to run the gauntlet of the same sort of aggressive bigotry from which their sisters in Australia have been shielded by law. In New Zealand, women largely have David Seymour to thank for putting them in this dangerous and unnecessarily distressing situation. This is the same politician who has been assuring the public that the protections contained in his euthanasia legislation will be fit for purpose, and will contain satisfactory protections for anyone wishing to avail themselves of that particular medical procedure, and without their difficult personal decision being subjected to external pressure.
One may well ask : why is Seymour wrapping one medical procedure in assurances about the need to protect the dignity of the vulnerable, while he is actively engaged in stripping away such protections from women seeking similar access to a medical procedure, and similar protections from outside pressure when trying to act on the difficult decision that they have reached? The glaring contradiction does nothing for Seymour’s credibility on the euthanasia referendum.
Footnote: Since the scrapping of the safe zones aspects of the abortion law reform is – arguably – inconsistent with the overall aims of (and requirements to protect patient/staff dignity) of the public health system, there should be nothing to stop Andrew Little and David Clark and Jan Logie from immediately introducing a new and separate piece of legislation, along the lines of Australia’s Safe Access Zones Act. If not, why not ?
Coronavirus and class
Like most things, the coronavirus crisis is being experienced differently by people blessed with work conditions that enable self-quarantining, working from home, and not coming in if you’re feeling sick. The people doing part-time work, or those on hourly rates of pay via short term, provisional contracts, or who are working in the gig economy or in the middle of 90 day trials…well, they’re not quite so lucky.
Some media outlets have noted how the options about coronavirus look when you’re sitting on different rungs of the income/employment ladder, but such coverage stands out, because it has been relatively rare. Basically, if you happen to work at a day care centre, construction site, or at a café…or in any service work context where you lack employer support, the options shrink :
A large segment of workers are not able to stay home, and many of them work in jobs that include high contact with other people. It could also mean that low-income workers are hit harder by the virus.
“Very quickly, it’s going to circulate a lot faster in the poorer communities than the wealthiest ones,” said Dr. James Hadler, Connecticut’s former state epidemiologist and now a consultant to the state. His work has found that influenza infections tend to strike low-income neighbourhoods more aggressively than affluent ones, and that poor families are more likely to live in close quarters with others, and to share bathrooms.
In New Zealand, the virus is likely to flourish in overcrowded households, and amidst low income, Maori and Pacific Island communities. As yet, it has been hard to detect how (and whether) the response strategies being touted by central government sufficiently recognise the class and ethnic differences that exist within the New Zealand population. In the US, there were indications overnight that this aspect of the coronavirus crisis might be being tentatively addressed in a package that US President Donald Trump took to Capitol Hill yesterday. It seems like too little, too late. It kicked off with plans to cut payroll taxes and to provide targeted relief to tourism and hospitality industries.
“Tourism and hospitality industries” being….hotels, airlines and the cruise industry. So the initial federal response to the coronavirus crisis in the US is ensuring that Trump hotels keep on ticking over, and that the folk running the cruise ship industry get immediate help. Good to know. Others were not impressed :
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer would rather prioritize expanding benefits and delivering relief directly to American workers and families hit by the coronavirus, and making testing free, than imposing a tax cut that’s likely to benefit only companies and a subset of workers. Some Democrats said they’re especially concerned a payroll tax cut could leave out workers who have already been laid off, given that coronavirus-related layoffs are already happening….
“One of the dilemmas with the payroll tax is if you’ve lost your job or you’re in the gig economy, you’re not going to get anything,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), vice chair of the US Congress Joint Economic Committee. “Or if you’re like so many Americans — making $25,000 or less — it ends up being $10 a week, not enough to really do anything.”
The sane logic applies here. In this country, access to sick leave entitlements needs to be immediately expanded, and wage subsidies directed to those self quarantining with provable cause. The coronavirus epidemic also makes it imperative that the coalition government needs to act on the recommendations contained in the Expert Advisory Group report on welfare reform.