Supporters of Planned Parenthood rally outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. February 11, 2017.
Supporters of Planned Parenthood rally outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. February 11, 2017. Reuters/Rebecca Cook

Women will now be free to enter abortion clinics in NSW without fear of harassment from pro-life groups. A bill that bans protesters outside abortion clinic has passed the Parliament with overwhelming support on Thursday night despite facing strong opponents, including Minister for Women Tanya Davies.

After several hours of fiery debate, the members of the lower house finally passed the bill to establish a 150-metre “safe access zone” around abortion clinics. This means that people caught harassing others within the radius restriction will potentially be sentenced to jail. It also makes it illegal to record or distribute recording of people inside the exclusion zone without the consent.

The “Safe Access to Reproductive Health Clinics” bill was co-sponsored in the upper house by National and Labor MPs, including Penny Sharpe, who described the passing of the bill as a “terrific day for women in New South Wales.” It was introduced in the lower house by Nationals MP Leslie Williams and passed just before midnight at 61 votes to 18. Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Deputy Premier John Barilaro helped secure its legislation with their support.

It faced strong opposition from pro-life groups and Catholics, who argued that the bill was an attempt to “silence” religious beliefs and people who apparently only wanted to educate women about their choice. The Anglican and Catholic Archbishops of Sydney fiercely opposed the bill. The Most Reverend Dr Glenn Davies said the bill would criminalise dissent.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who is facing a scandal of his own following his paid television interview with partner Vikki Campion, contacted his National colleagues to lobby for a vote against the bill, 9News reports. “People know I have a pro-life position,” he said. “I didn’t put my private views in a public paper to read; I expressed them privately.”

Barilaro countered, “Barnaby can do whatever Barnaby wants to do, the Safe Access Bill is one I am very proud of.”

Sharpe, meanwhile, expressed dismay that the Minister for Women, Tanya Davies, as well as former minister Pro Goward were against the bill. Davies, a pro-lifer, defended the “sidewalk counsellors,” saying they only offer support and information.

Davies’ position has baffled some of her Coalition colleagues, particularly because of her role as minister for Women. A government backbencher told the ABC, “I honestly cannot believe that the Minister for Women would vote against women’s safety. Unf------believable.”

“This bill is about respect, dignity and privacy of women — for the Minister of Women to not support this, you have to seriously question if her position is tenable,” another Coalition MP said.

Williams said the bill was not about abortions, but about “respecting the rights of others.” Although she said she understood that there were “self-appointed sidewalk counsellors” who believe they are providing advice for the best interests of women, she said they were not qualified to do so.

“They are untrained and they are unqualified and are clearly providing counsel with a predetermined outcome — that is stopping women having an abortion,” she said. “They are ignorant of the woman’s circumstances and background and are indiscriminate when it comes to who they target with their views and their intimidating behaviour.”

Labor’s Jenny Aitchison, in support of the bill, urged her colleagues to help protect women against the “appalling” behaviour of protesters. “We are not stopping people from praying or holding their faith and we are not imposing overly harsh penalties on people who do not want to harm others,” she said.

With the legislation of the bill, NSW joins Victoria, Tasmania, Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory in giving protection to women seeking abortions from clinics.