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Women say no to shutting down sidewalk counsellors

Last Tuesday evening, an audience gathered at Parliament House for a panel discussion on the topic of Penny Sharpe's proposed  'Safe Access to Reproductive Health Clinics' bill, which seeks to enact 150 metre 'safe access zones' around abortion facilities. Voicing any opinion against abortion in these zones will be punishable by heavy fines or jail time. Organised by grassroots group 'We Support Women,' the event's panellists drew on their experiences and expertise in order to articulate their reservations about the bill.

Lawyer Anna Walsh discussed some of the legal concerns surrounding the bill, not least among which is the bill's promotion as relevant to the public health sector. Stressing the importance of clear scientific evidence and demonstrable risk to public health as an indispensable basis for any change or adaptation within the aforementioned sector, she denounced any reliance upon generalisations and/or isolated anecdotes as a basis for policy change. She also pointed out the fact that laws already exist in regard to the intimidation and harassment that the bill proposes to punish, and questioned the necessity of adding a separate, extremely specific law on top of those already in place.

Sidewalk counsellor Jocelyn Headley spoke eloquently about the services that she and other counsellors offer to the women that they encounter, emphasising the fact that, contrary to some media narratives, sidewalk counsellors are absolutely not out to harass or abuse anyone, nor to protest or obstruct, but simply to offer support and assistance to anyone willing to accept it. To engage in abusive or violent behaviour would be completely antithetical to the goals they seek to achieve. Whether it's offering friendship and a listening ear, fixing  a leaky roof, paying bond money, arranging legal assistance, providing material necessities or opening their homes for months at a time to people they've only just met, these sidewalk counsellors do what they do for one reason only: to help, and not to harm. Everything they do is within the bounds of the law and is permitted by the local police; Jocelyn explained that on one occasion, members of the police revealed that they had been covertly observing and conducting surveillance of the sidewalk counsellors for three months. They had found no evidence of law-breaking during that time.

Psychologist and sidewalk counsellor Wanda Skowronska added to Jocelyn's sentiments regarding the importance of sidewalk counsellors and their presence outside abortion facilities, pointing out that the power of personal encounter cannot be underestimated when engaging with women who feel that abortion is their only option. Rather than merely providing abstract information, listening to and engaging with these women on a personal level transforms hypothetical options into concrete possibilities and demonstrates that there can be different way, allowing for a genuine choice.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Jaya Taki. Jaya's story of coerced abortion gained widespread media attention when she first broke her silence, and she spoke emotionally about the grief, depression and suicidal thoughts which plagued her after the experience. She stressed the importance of validation, explaining that even though the birth of her daughter a few years prior had already shown her the incredible hope and transformation that could come out of an unexpected pregnancy, the constant pressure from her colleagues, friends and partner had made her feel that her wish to continue the pregnancy was irrational and that abortion was her only real option. She expressed profound regret that she had not known sooner about the support and assistance which pro-life groups offer, and denounced any 'safe access zone' which would deprive vulnerable women of the opportunity to experience validation and make a genuine choice.

Pro-life advocate Anna von Marburg spoke about her experiences in Albury, where pro-life organisations and sidewalk counsellors have faced sustained opposition from lobby groups and individuals seeking to silence them and shut down their activities. Despite defamation, hostility and many complaints, police have not found the pro-life groups guilty of any breach of law during the eight years of Anna's involvement.

Most importantly of all, the evening's panel featured two brave mothers who shared their personal stories of crisis pregnancy and encounter with Sydney sidewalk counsellors. Both women emphasised the kindness and generosity of those who approached them, highlighting the complete absence of any pressuring or coercion on the counsellors' part. Both women had scheduled abortions against their own wishes in the belief that they had no other choice, but as a result of encounters with sidewalk counsellors they were provided with access to the validation and support that they needed and empowered to make a genuine choice.

The evening's uniting sentiment was clear: that 'safe access zones,' rather than making women safer and respecting their choices, will instead contribute to the isolation and helplessness that many women feel, removing support and agency from the vulnerable individuals who need it most.