It’s raining heavily onto the car windscreen as I approach the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic.
As I park the car I can make out a group of people on the footpath, surrounded by signs and placards. A wave of anxiety runs through my body and sits in the pit of my stomach.
When I step out of the car I am faced by a sign with a photo of an eight-week old unborn foetus.
The group standing on the footpath, called the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, are also holding rosary beads, singing hymns and saying prayers.
As I make my way towards the gate, a man who has broken away from the group blocks the thoroughfare and verbally harasses women coming and going from the clinic.
“Protect your child,” the man said to me as I neared him. “It’s an unborn child, protect your baby.”
A security guard standing at the gate rescues me from the stares of disgust and shame and walks me up the brick path towards the front door.
Standing inside the reception area I feel judged and guilty and I’m just a reporter here to cover a story. I can barely begin to imagine how the women who are here to have their pregnancies terminated must feel.
Some women attend the clinic for other medical reasons. They are also targeted.
The protesters confront those in cruelly uncompromising positions. Some are pregnant as a result of sexual assault. For others, the pregnancy could threaten their own life.
Protesters win court battle
On Wednesday, the East Melbourne clinic lost its bid in the Victorian Supreme Court to order Melbourne City Council to prevent right to life protesters from gathering outside the premises – intimidating and threatening women, and trying to stop them from getting abortions.
The Helpers of God’s Precious Infants group have been harassing women entering the centre for more than two decades.
According to Susie Allanson, who has been the centre’s clinical psychologist for 24 years, some of them would tell women walking into the centre: ‘Do not murder your child’, ‘You will never get over this’ and ‘Your relationship will break down’.
On one occasion, a protester walked up to a mother with her four-year-old child as they got out of their car and said to the child ‘Your mummy is going to kill your baby brother or sister’, Dr Allanson told The New Daily.
The staff are confronted by the anti-abortion group each day as they arrive for work.
One day while wearing a red jacket one protester told Dr Allanson: “You are wearing the colour of the blood of the children you killed” and “you’ll pay one day”.
“I think it’s a psychological and physical barrier. They walk right beside you, talking at you, and they are thrusting things into your hand, telling you things and saying things that are very off putting,” Dr Allanson said.
“They hand out pamphlets that are anti-contraception, talking about the ‘toxic pill’ with graphic misinformation – and that is a real concern.
“They are wanting to instil fear into women, and they certainly succeed with some. They come in quite fearful.”
She said she was aware of instances where patients were so intimidated they delayed returning for important follow-up care.
In July 2001, clinic security guard Steve Rogers was fatally shot at the site. Anti-abortionist Peter James Knight was convicted of his murder and is serving a life sentence with a non-parole period of 23 years.
A legal perspective
Human Rights Law Centre director of advocacy and research Emily Howie, who was part of a team of lawyers defending the clinic, told The New Daily the case had drawn attention to the right of women to access safe and legal healthcare.
“Women have had to walk the gauntlet just to see their doctor, just to access terminations – lawful health services provided in this state,” Ms Howie said.
“So, while this case is a step in the right direction today, what it really does is also highlight that we need law reform.”
Outside court on Wednesday, members of the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants told the ABC they had been vindicated by the decision.
Group member Jeremy denied they were harassing patients.
“Those who would seek some help, want some help, we’re there,” he said. “That [harassing] wouldn’t be of any benefit at all, if they’re looking for help.”
About 26 per cent of pregnancies are terminated across the country annually.