The vast majority of Australians accept that women and people who can become pregnant should have the right to choose abortion.
In this country, abortion is safe, legal and common. It is a necessary part of reproductive health care and a choice that about 25–30% of women make over their life time.
Abortion laws used to be governed under a British law known as Offences against the Person Act 1861. This changed in 1969 when Justice Clifford Menhennitt ruled in the Victorian Supreme Court that abortion was not unlawful if it could be shown that it was necessary for the woman’s physical and mental health.
The Menhennitt ruling coincided with the work and activism of Dr Bertram Wainer, a Scottish-born General Practitioner who worked in Victoria. Wainer helped uncover police abortion protection rackets and played a role in successfully testing the new Menhennitt ruling in court.
Abortion had been governed by the criminal code in all states and territories for more than a century. But, shortly after the Menhennitt ruling, Wainer opened one of the first public clinics to provide abortion care.
It has taken a long struggle to get abortion out of state’s criminal codes.
For instance, the New South Wales Greens moved to remove it from the 1900 Crimes Act in 2015, but it only happened in 2019 in large part because of a long-running, broad-based community struggle.
Since Labor, the Liberals and Nationals give their MPs a “conscience” vote, they were able to weaken the original bill.
A similar process took place a year before in Queensland to remove abortion from that state’s Crimes Act.
For many, however, abortion is still not affordable and accessible because many public hospitals do not offer the service. This also helps maintain the stigma is still associated with reproductive health care.
While abortion is now part of various states’ health laws, any reform remains subject to MPs’ individual consciences.
Much of the moral outrage at abortion law reform is tied to patriarchal notions that women cannot be trusted to know what to do with their bodies.
Anti-choice MPs in state and federal parliaments also use reproductive health care as a political bargaining tool. Brian Harradine, the former conservative independent Tasmanian Senator, supported the partial sale of Telstra in exchange for the John Howard Coalition government agreeing to measures that effectively made it impossible for women to access the abortion drug RU486 and to cut aid to family planning services overseas.
The RU486 ban remained until cross party MPs successfully removed the ministerial veto in 2006.
PM Tony Abbott and his Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce, both anti-choice, attended rallies opposing the decriminalisation of abortion in NSW in 2019.
Former Victorian, now Democratic Labour Party Senator Bernie Finn, still holds an annual “March for the Babies” on the anniversary of Victoria legislating to remove abortion from the Crimes Act in 2008.
Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended the former Assistant Minister for Women, Amanda Stoker, attending an anti-abortion rally in the lead-up to this federal election. Coalition MP Matt Canavan and One Nation Party’s Malcolm Roberts were at the same rally.
The Queensland opposition Liberal National Party has refused to rule out a review and dismantling of the state’s abortion laws if it wins the election in 2024. Health authorities say the laws need work to make access easier.
As we become more aware of coercive control in family and gendered violence, we are beginning to understand the insidious nature and extent of reproductive control and coercion, which can deny a family member or partner access to contraception. Such criminal behaviours can deny someone access to abortion, forcing them to continue an unwanted pregnancy.
Reproductive control, coercion, rape and sexual assault are significant forms of violence against women. When coupled with the widespread lack of affordable and accessible abortion care, the barriers for some women and people in accessing abortion can seem insurmountable.
Widespread casualisation can be another barrier to access abortion care: when the person needing an abortion cannot turn down shifts at work, they can jeopardise their health.
The gender pay gap, in particular in feminised work where the pay rates are lower, creates more barriers.
A great deal more law reform is needed to make reproducutive health care accessible and affordable. Alongside this, work needs to be done to end family and gendered violence and address the chronic and unjust gender pay gap.