Last week, Queensland's Bligh Labor government demonstrated it could remove the conscience vote on laws regarding abortion. It also instructed ALP parliamentarians to vote in favour of a law to allow medical terminations on the same limited grounds as now apply to surgical terminations.
Attorney-General Cameron Dick was keen to distance this move from any suggestions that abortion laws were being liberalised. He preferred to describe the legislation as "technical adjustments".
Both interpretations are correct. The change did not remove abortion from the criminal code, so doctors — who have ceased performing medical terminations — remain concerned about possible prosecutions.
However, it did reveal that use of the conscience vote was not inevitable. It certainly increased frustrations within the broader community who support the implementation of Labor Party policy to fully decriminalise abortion in Queensland.
The Bligh government's approach to abortion law reform begs the question: why have a policy if you are too afraid to implement it when in government? The government is already facing voter backlash on its decision to ignore party policy opposing the sale of state assets and implement privatisation plans.
The argument presented on this is that public ownership policy is "aspirational". Presumably the same applies to the ALP policy on the repeal of abortion laws.
But how are we to know which policies are real and which merely aspirational? Is this reminiscent of previous Coalition prime minister John Howard's "core" and "non-core" promises?
Meanwhile, on August 29, 200 pro-choice campaigners marched the streets of Brisbane's CBD, demanding the government intervene to drop the charges against a Cairns couple — who have been charged with illegally using a drug to induce an abortion — and repeal all anti-abortion laws under which they have been charged. Speakers included pro-choice representatives ranging from doctors, trade unionists, students, parliamentarians, and grassroots activists, indicating the breadth of community support for women's right to safe, accessible abortion.
A pro-choice vigil in Cairns was staffed by supporters continuously for more than 50 hours from September 2 to 4 outside the Cairns courthouse. Throughout the day and night, the vigil's visitors' book became a record of the names and comments from the community upholding a woman's right to choose.
Inside the courthouse on September 3, the magistrate dismissed the charge of administering an abortion drug, laid against the young man involved, when the police prosecutor said they would not provide any evidence for that charge.
However, the couple still face once charge each. The young woman is accused of causing her own miscarriage and the young man is accused of supplying or procuring the drug to cause the miscarriage. The magistrate reserved her decision to send them to trial. Earlier in the hearing she had committed the young man to trial but agreed to reserve her decision after the man's barrister asked to withdraw an earlier concession on the case.
It is an anxious wait for the young couple. It is an anxious time for women requiring medical abortions in Queensland, who are now travelling interstate to access services.
It is a time for action by the majority of Queenslanders who believe that abortion should be removed from the criminal code and that women should be allowed to make decisions about their own bodies, and that these issues should not be resolved in a courtroom.