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For some time, I have meant to follow up on the article I wrote last year about the Tasmanian Reproductive Health Act, but illness and death in my close family have prevented me spending time on writing. So this will be brief.

Last month, pro-life activist Graham Preston (sometimes accompanied by supporters) conducted a sustained protest within the access zone for Hobart’s ‘Specialist Gynaecology Centre’ (known by most people as an abortion clinic). This took place on Hobart’s ‘main drag’ during peak hour traffic and gained the attention of the press, supporters of abortion, and even the police. Most interestingly, this protest was in the wake of police dropping charges against Preston for failing to obey a police direction to move on earlier in the year in the same location.

Media reports have been unclear and contradictory as to the reason the charges were dropped and why Preston was able to continue his protest. Local pro-lifers are even claiming that they now have police permission to protest and that no one will be arrested.

I don’t claim to have the ‘scoop’, but I have contacted Tasmania Police and I have it in writing that they have NOT given permission for peaceful prayer vigils within the access zone.

I would also offer a few thoughts on this topic:

1) If we take the police at their word (which I’m inclined to do), the police realised they did not have sufficient justification for issuing a ‘move on’ order (under the Police Offences Act Section 15B) as Preston had not committed an offence. This conclusion was possibly based on the provisions of the Reproductive Health Act which prohibit a protest that “is able to be seen or heard” not could or might be seen or heard. This may seem a minor distinction, but in law these things matter, especially when a law is yet to be put to the test or set a precedent. Preston’s signs were facing the oncoming traffic on Macquarie Street, not the clinic entrance in Victoria Street, and it is conceivable that someone could have entered the clinic from the north without seeing or hearing Preston’s (silent) protest. It would also have been nigh impossible to demonstrate intent to impede access, especially as Preston has in the past been gaoled for actually blocking access to an abortion clinic.

2) The police cannot give permission to do what is unlawful.

3) Just because Graham Preston didn’t end up fined or in gaol doesn’t mean others won’t. A clear violation, for example a group of people directly in front of the clinic entrance, especially without signs quoting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, could have a very different outcome. The police are unlikely to make the same mistake twice.

4) When the police ask for your name and address they either suspect you have committed an offence or believe you have committed an offence. This is not something to be taken lightly and may serve as a ‘warning’ of arrest if you commit the offence a second time. I believe the police have already taken the names and addresses of Graham and his fellow protesters.

5) The police may have been avoiding opening a can of worms. The offences committed against Graham Preston were far more serious than those he may have committed violating the Reproductive Health Act. It is quite possible that pursuing the case was viewed as undesirable given that it might highlight the loud and aggressive behaviour of pro-abortion counter protesters, the assaults on Preston, and the theft of his property.

Personally, I am a firm advocate of exercising one’s conscience, but the essence of conscience is knowledge (con + scire – with + ‘know’). It remains unlawful to protest (even peacefully) within sight or hearing of someone entering an abortion clinic in Tasmania. The penalties are not inconsiderable. A criminal record is not a minor matter and can have massive repercussions on one’s career and ability to support oneself and one’s family. Some people pray for the end of abortion quietly and without drawing attention to themselves, often just down the road in St Joseph’s Catholic Church, still within the access zone. Who is to say they are any less effective than the person standing on the street corner? That’s something to think about….