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A call for women MPs to come together, across party lines, on abortion reform in NSW, Qld

Significant reform in 2008 in Victoria of the state’s abortion law was achieved – say Professors Heather Douglas and Caroline de Costa – because women MPs overwhelmingly voted, across party lines, to support the Bill. In the article below, they say New South Wales women MPs should now get behind Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi and that a new opportunity has arisen in Queensland where abortion legislation is little changed since when it was written in 1899.

***

Heather Douglas and Caroline de Costa write:

On 14 May New South Wales Greens Upper House MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi read her intention to introduce a bill to reform abortion law in New South Wales onto the notice paper of the parliament. This follows Dr Faruqi’s giving notice on 19 June last year of her intention to introduce a bill to decriminalise abortion.

Abortion is an important health issue for Australian women, yet in 2015, the right to a safe, legal, abortion cannot be guaranteed for women in two of the nation’s most populous states: New South Wales and Queensland.  This is clearly an unacceptable situation and blatantly out of step with community attitudes.

At present more than 50 per cent of Australia’s women live in states where the law on abortion dates from the 19th century. A third of the population lives in New South Wales, where the abortion provisions of the 1900 Crimes Act still apply, and more than 20 per cent of Australian women live in Queensland, where the abortion legislation in the 1899 Criminal Code is little changed since the day it was written. In both states the wording of the legislation was taken directly from the English Offences Against the Person Act of 1861. The United Kingdom rescinded their own laws in 1967 but the outdated law and language remain in place in both Australian states.

Queensland has the most archaic abortion laws in Australia. Anyone directly involved with abortion in Queensland can be prosecuted: including the pregnant woman, the receptionist who answers her enquiry, the counsellor, the nursing assistants and the doctors. Indeed, as recently as 2010, a young Cairns couple were charged with abortion offences and successfully committed to trial. While a jury ultimately acquitted the pair, the experience was a traumatic one for two young people who didn’t believe they were doing anything wrong.

The criminalised nature of abortion means it is a radicalised procedure, particularly in Queensland, but also in New South Wales, and one which carries a significant social stigma for doctors. Unlike the situation in the UK and other parts of Europe, abortion is still not part of mainstream medical practice. Many doctors refuse to provide or refer for abortion and many others don’t want anyone to know they do so. Rural women, in particular, miss out, as most doctors who provide abortion services are located in urban areas. The secrecy and stigma can make it difficult for women to know what to do or where to go.

Like all other states, both New South Wales and Queensland offer screening tests for fetal abnormality to all pregnant women. In both states the most up-to-date technology is available for diagnoses of such abnormalities, including NIPT (non-invasive prenatal testing) in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, now available to all women able to access private pregnancy care.  But for women receiving the diagnosis of a severe abnormality, and deciding to request a termination of pregnancy, there is the additional and unwelcome news that such a procedure is illegal in their state.

The rudimentary medical technology of the 19th century did not include diagnosis in the fetus, and abortion law has since failed to keep up with modern medical practice. Particularly in the public sector in Australia, where NIPT has yet to be introduced, most abortions for fetal abnormality need to be done later in pregnancy, around twenty weeks, as the diagnoses cannot be made until this time.  As pregnancy progresses, the abortion process becomes more difficult for the doctor, more risky to the pregnant woman and much more expensive – sometimes up to $10,000 when done later than 20 weeks. It’s important that women have access to information and support as early as possible so they can make timely decisions. It’s also important that they have access, when it’s needed, to later abortion services close to home. Too often significant amounts of money are spent supporting women to travel to Victoria so they can access a later abortion. The current situation disadvantages rural and poor women most of all.

Overwhelmingly, the public supports women’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. The 2003 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes found that 81% of those surveyed supported this right.  The survey also found that 77% of those who identify as religious support a woman’s right to choose. A survey conducted by Auspoll in 2009 of over 1000 Queenslanders found that almost 4 out of 5 voters wanted the law changed so abortion is no longer a crime. The campaign to decriminalise abortion in NSW is already well under way and gaining support from women across that state.

In Queensland the time has also come for reform. For the first time in Queensland’s history women outnumber men on Queensland’s front bench. There are now eight women in Cabinet and the leader and deputy leader are both women. There are 22 women in Queensland’s parliament– more women than ever! And this matters because we know women make a difference on this issue.

In 2008 in Victoria there was significant reform of the state’s abortion law. In Victoria abortion is no longer a crime – and abortion rates have not increased.  The successful reform in Victoria happened because women overwhelmingly voted, across party lines, to support the Bill. In 2013, in Tasmania, the then Labor Health Minister Michelle O’Byrne successfully steered her Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Act through the Tasmanian Parliament with the help of women across all parties, largely decriminalising abortion in Tasmania and introducing the first legislation mandating protected access of women to abortion clinics.

Reform also occurred nationally in 2005-2006, when women politicians got together, again across party lines, to pave the way for better access to medical abortions through forcing the approval of RU486.  Claire Moore (Labor), Lyn Allison (Australian Democrats), Judith Troeth (Liberal) and Fiona Nash (National) created history when they took a stand on the issue.

Abortion should not remain a crime on the statute books of New South Wales and Queensland, putting women like that Cairns teenager at risk of criminal prosecution. Mehreen Faruqi is leading the way in NSW – women, especially women politicians, should follow in both states.

Heather Douglas is Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.

Caroline de Costa is Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at James Cook University in Cairns.

Related Posts

Comments 9

  1. Scott says:

    “Indeed, as recently as 2010, a young Cairns couple were charged with abortion offences and successfully committed to trial. While a jury ultimately acquitted the pair, the experience was a traumatic one for two young people who didn’t believe they were doing anything wrong.”

    So a young man obtains RU486 (which wasn’t registered for use at the time, it is now) from the Ukraine of all places, gives it to his girlfriend who promptly takes it with no medical supervision to successfully abort at 60 days.
    So no prescription, no guarantee that the drug had gone through quality control, no medical supervision or follow up, and no counselling to ensure the boy friend hadn’t pressured her into it.
    This is a victory for women’s reproductive rights?

  2. Norman Hanscombe says:

    Scott, don’t look for logical analysis in an article which relies on gender-based ‘arguments’ for the way ahead, especially when such absurd coalitions of the fervent willing in the article are likely to be counterproductive anyway.
    Marie means well — but.

  3. Carla Clark says:

    Sorry, Norman, but when has a man ever gestated a pregnancy? I can see why woman would be so fervent and passionate about an issue when it directly affects them…. But, why don’t you speak to some of your US counterparts if you believe so passionately that gender-based arguments should not be relied upon for the way ahead? I mean, they are ACTUALLY using gender-based arguments as a way forward, such as: but, see, only so many women support abortion without limitation! That must mean we ‘manly men’, who will never experience pregnancy for ourselves, are right in determining what risks women can and should take in regards to the fourth deadliest medical condition for WOMEN, worldwide, aka PREGNANCY. Darn, eh?

    Marie, I hope NSW can achieve the same results as the Australian Capital Territory. Then on to the rest of the country. It would be the second country, next to my own, Canada, to have decriminalized abortion laws. And, like you stated, we have comparable rates of abortion to countries where it is illegal or heavily restricted. Hmmm….

  4. Norman Hanscombe says:

    Carla, there was no need for you to say sorry. It’s sad though that you can’t understand, among other things, that your question “when has a man ever gestated a pregnancy?” highlights the fact that logical analysis in arguments clearly isn’t your forte.

  5. Scott says:

    @Carla

    “fourth deadliest medical condition for WOMEN, worldwide, aka PREGNANCY”

    I think instead of all women, you mean women of reproductive age (15-49). At least according to WHO statistics.

    http://gamapserver.who.int/gho/interactive_charts/women_and_health/causes_death/chart.html

  6. Stuart Coyle says:

    Scott, I’m sure that if abortion were legal and easily available in Queensland the Cairns couple would not have had to resort to buying an yet to be registered drug and administering it themselves.

  7. Scott says:

    Come on Stuart. In 2009, there were 15,000 odd abortions conducted in Queensland according to Medicare stats (and apparently those stats don’t include abortions performed in Public Hospitals). That’s the third highest in the Commonwealth after NSW (29,000) and VIC (18,000).
    Doesn’t sound too illegal or hard to access does it?
    The law is there to try to prevent the backyard operators and people doing it themselves (which, based on the Cairns Court Case lack of conviction, it did a pretty poor job)

  8. Daly says:

    As a woman, now of non reproductive age, I am sick to death of reading men commenting on women’s issues like abortion. I first demonstrated and was involved in abortion law reform over forty years ago when it was, as the author states, long overdue. It is still long overdue because men will not do anything to assist their wives, lovers, mothers and daughters when they either have had no access to or their contraception has failed. It is a disgrace and a sign of the lack of power of half the population that we are still seeking law reform in this area of medical (not moral) decision making.
    If you are male, please read the legislation in place and ponder what you would do if you were subject to it and had a short time frame to follow your decision through. Oh! and not enough money to go to Victoria or the ACT in the next couple of weeks.

  9. Norman Hanscombe says:

    Daly, whether or not you’re “sick to death of reading men commenting on women’s issues”, until you manage to arrange for speech to be free only when you say so, try to live with it.
    As for your late arrival merely four decades back, while at that time I actually spearheaded a movement which saw abortion law policy changed within the ALP then and earlier, unlike you I accept it gives me no right to want the sorts of control over what now happens.

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