THE Victorian Human Rights commission has sided with an East Melbourne abortion clinic in its legal fight to stop anti-choice protesters harassing patients and staff.
The Fertility Control Clinic launched Supreme Court action against Melbourne City Council last year, claiming it has continuously failed to apply a law that allows protesters who are deemed a “nuisance” to be moved away.
Counsel for the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, Kate Eastman SC, said protesters harassing women and staff should be deemed a nuisance to public health under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act, which defends the rights of people to access legal health services.
“The commission submits that impending a person’s ability to access lawful reproductive health services and the intrusive interference on a person travelling to and from work, and while at work, will engage and likely limit the right to privacy.
“This means that one set of human rights cannot be used to nullify another person’s rights.”
Ms Eastman said declaring the protesters a nuisance to public health is not incompatible with its charter of human rights and responsibilities.
Members of Helpers of God’s Precious Infants hold protests outside the Wellington Parade building six days a week and a religious service once a month. They have for several years been accused of intimidating patients and staff, blocking their entry to and from cars, yelling at and following women down streets.
In 2001, a security guard was murdered by an anti-choice protester.
Senior lawyer for Maurice Blackburn, Elizabeth O’Shea, said the clinic did not object to the protesters but said they should not be allowed to trample on the rights of people to access a legal medical procedure.
“It’s not the content of their views, it’s how they go about this,” she said. “I think in an ideal world, the clinic would like enough space for people to walk to and from without being harassed.”
Ms O’Shea said the council had wiped its hands clean of the protesters, denying there is a problem.
“It would help if the council took this more seriously.”
The council declined to comment. However, lord mayor Robert Doyle has previously defended the clinic in its fight against the Helpers.
He blamed “impotent” laws that were frustrating the council’s efforts to create distance between the clinic and protesters.
“I have even more sympathy for the young women who from time to time get harassed as they enter that clinic at a very vulnerable time in their lives, and I think that is appalling behaviour,” Mr Doyle said.
He said the council staff visited the clinic two to three times a week and referred any complaints to police.
Helpers of God’s Precious Infants spokesman Dave Forster denied claims his group harassed or intimidated people and expressed concern the case could set a bad precedent for civil rights groups.
The case will be based on the interpretation of the word “nuisance” in the Public Health and Wellbeing Act. The case has been adjourned until June.