Do Australians support freedom of speech?

The other week I was working on a blog article which was looking at whether Australians are Prochoice. The blog article was split up into two sections Part One looked at the historical trend in Australia on opinions towards abortion and Part Two  looked at Australians attitudes towards the recent trend of decriminalisation. 

I was planning to stop the “series” there but recent events have got me wondering: Do Australians support freedom of speech? And I think I will chime in one more time.

On the 24th of March a petition of over 5500 signatures went before Albury council petitioning with council to take action against a regular group of “protesters” outside an abortion clinic.

And I would heartily agree with them, if the protesters were engaging in anti-social behaviour. Violence and intimidation are not acceptable behaviours, especially not in public and especially not in an area with so many women who are likely to be in a vulnerable situation.

Of course the accusations against this group are horrendous, in the words of councillor David Thurley, “You can hear these people praying from 9 o’clock in the morning to six at night sometimes.” What truly unruly behaviour!

The “Helpers”, as they call themselves, claim that occasionally women who are intending to enter the abortion clinic do approach them and receive long term financial and emotional support. Many of these women were”choosing” abortion because they felt they had no other choice, and it is thanks to these volunteers that they have been provided with a means to make a real choice: a choice which actually involves viable options.

But what is truly at stake here are issues that are much deeper. In the first two blog articles we discovered not only that Australians are on the whole rather apathetic towards abortion, but that they are also generally unsupportive of changes that occur in abortion law when states “decriminalize” abortion. So why then such antagonism towards silent, peaceful and respectful protest?

With the danger of sounding like a conspiracy theorist I would make the assertion that it is because as a society we have placed abortion in the “too hard” basket, as a taboo topic. Public discussion of abortion makes Australians uncomfortable- how else have we ended up with a society which is increasingly on the fence about abortion? Read more

Such attempts to restrict public statements on abortion are not restricted to this case in Albury. Just last year in Tasmania’s Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill prohibits members of the public from making a public protest against abortion 150 meters from an abortion clinic. Antisocial behaviour could already be punished by law and police already had the rights to “move along” protestors who were violent or intimidating. What this bill did was to effectively deny the right of those with an objection to abortion to exercise freedom of assembly in a respectful manner. 

While LifeChoice does not engage in public protest, and does not condone the use of graphic images in public, we strongly value the right of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly while such expressions remain respectful and reasonable. Restriction of these rights simply because an issue is uncomfortable to talk about is an incredibly dangerous sign indeed.

Abortion is an incredibly complex ethical and social issue and as a society we need to be informed about the debate. That is not going to be achieved by silencing public abortion discussion in Australian society.  

In the highly appropriate words of Noam Chomsky:

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”      

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