NOT all protests — or protesters — are created equal.
On this topic, at least, it’s possible that The Helpers of God’s Precious Infants and I would see eye to eye.
Unlike causes that have an end date (think Tecoma v McDonald’s and East West Link v inner-city locals), saving the unborn remains undeniably timeless.
Yes, when it comes to exercising their right to free speech these pro-lifers are in it for the long haul.
For the past 42 years, they’ve gathered like a storm outside the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne with the sole aim of getting under the skin of vulnerable women (and occasionally their partners).
I had my own introduction to the group about 20 years ago, when I went along to support a friend and was taken by surprise by the force of pious loathing.
Still reeling from finding herself pregnant, the last thing my friend needed was a run-in with a throng burning with absolution, and I distinctly remember the haunted look in her eyes as her resolve ebbed away as quickly as my patience.
The last time the group and I crossed paths was about seven years ago when, newly pregnant with my much-wanted first child, I nearly walked straight into a blown-up poster board of a bloodied aborted eight-week-old foetus.
Mistaking me for a client, a protester almost blinded me with the thing, so exuberant was he for me to see the light.
Of course, over the years the protesters’ names and faces have changed. What hasn’t, however, is their crude arsenal of posters, pamphlets and poisonous rhetoric.
And so it was with interest that I read of the legal action launched against the City of Melbourne by the East Melbourne clinic over the decades-long remonstrations.
Susie Allanson, a psychologist who has long worked at the clinic, told The Age that since abortion was decriminalised in 2008, protesters from The Helpers of God’s Precious Infants had continued to hound people as they entered and left her workplace on Wellington Parade. As Dr Allanson says, so gung-ho are some of the protesters that they think nothing of thrusting pamphlets into the clients’ faces while imploring them ‘‘to not kill their babies’’.
It’s no surprise that the clinic’s staff daily called police and the Melbourne Council with their frustration and concerns.
But to no avail.
This is the clinic which, you may remember, was the scene of the fatal shooting of security guard Steve Rogers nine years ago.
The shooter, Peter James Knight, an anti-abortion extremist, was seen with the protesters on at least two previous occasions.
So Dr Allanson’s pleas — or the lawsuit launched by the clinic — are hardly based on hyperbole, let alone hysteria.
No, not all protesters are created equally.
And while I understand the fear and apprehension that met the new anti-protest amendments passed in our State Parliament last week, in light of such nuisance behaviour and continuing harassment, I’m willing to give this new legislation the benefit of the doubt.
What worries me more is the fact that Victoria has long had tough protest laws.
And despite lord mayor Robert Doyle’s protestations that the council’s hands were tied, it’s always been within its rights to move The Helpers of God’s Precious Infants along, as Lizzie O’Shea from Maurice Blackburn, the firm representing the East Melbourne clinic, argues.
The right to protest is no small gift and we must guard it stealthily.
This is true no matter how ill-informed, misguided or even vile the message may be.
But the physical and psychological safety of finding themselves inside the protesters’ orbit should never be up for negotiation.
Conviction fuelled by menace is every bit as dangerous as throwing a punch. And it should be treated as the crime that it is.
Jen Vuk is a freelance writer.