By Leslie Williams
Abortion access in the ACT is again under threat. Anti-abortion Legislative Assembly members have started a political row over information to be provided to women seeking terminations.
A new abortion law — which began as a private member's bill introduced by "independent" anti-choice MLA Paul Osborne last year — took effect on June 11. Its main immediate effect is that women seeking an abortion must wait for 72 hours after receiving an "information booklet" approved by the health minister before having the operation.
One provision in Osborne's bill sought to force women seeking abortions to view, as part of the information package, photographs of foetuses at specific stages of development, including how it would look at the likely date of the abortion.
This attempt to place emotional pressure on women not to abort was widely condemned, forcing a compromise between the pro-choice and anti-choice MLAs regarding the development of the information package. A seven-member medical panel would decide on what information was medically appropriate to ensure the woman's informed consent for the abortion.
While neither group of MLAs were pleased with this outcome, health minister Michael Moore claimed it was a great compromise: medical experts would decide. Notably, Moore had provided the "pro-choice" chief minister Kate Carnell with a face-saving way to vote for Osborne's bill. She wanted to maintain his political loyalty to her minority government.
The panel's composition was detailed in the legislation. Five members would be medical specialists, including a psychiatrist, and two would be nurses. Some would come from the Catholic Church-administered Calvary Hospital and the others from the ACT's public hospital and health department.
The panel's brief was to consider material relating to the risks and benefits of termination and the risks and benefits of continuing pregnancy. The panel could include pictures of foetuses, but this was its decision.
The panel developed an information booklet which drew heavily on information provided to women seeking an abortion in Western Australia, which it considered well sourced and developed by a broad reference group. The panel unanimously reported to Moore that pictures or drawings of foetuses were irrelevant and could be counterproductive or cloud the issues. It noted that material provided in New Zealand, which includes pictures, is being revised to take into account perceived emotional bias.
Surprised anti-choice MLAs now claim the panel's recommendations go against the intent of the assembly. They have proposed that the assembly approve a new regulation to ensure that pictures are shown to all women seeking an abortion.
Moore has accepted that the assembly's intent was that pictures be included, but has said he will vote against the new regulation. Carnell, who has the decisive vote, has said she will not vote for the inclusion of emotive pictures, but approves of the NZ booklet pictures.
Carnell's manoeuvres stem from her government's increasingly dire situation. The assembly may consider a no-confidence motion at its next sitting, when the government auditor is due to report on the Bruce Stadium scandal. Also, ACT government workers are campaigning strongly for a decent enterprise bargaining outcome. The anti-abortion regulations could shore up Carnell's alliance with Osborne.
Community anger is growing again. The ACT Division of General Practice and the ACT Women's Medical Society have stated they will not compromise doctor-patient relationships by handing out material likely to offend or distress. Other women's health groups have condemned the moves as insulting and women's rights groups have vowed to campaign during the next elections on the issue.
Even the July 14 Canberra Times editorial stated, "They should have left well enough alone a year ago. There was no need to change the law."
Greens MLA Kerrie Tucker will vote against interference with the panel's recommendations. Tucker told Green Left Weekly, "Any move to overturn the panel's decision would be inconsistent with the legislation".
Pro-choice activists are organising a campaign during the August sitting. To get involved, phone ACT Pro-choice on 6247 2424.