Abortion law reform in NSW

Issue 
Mehreen Faruqi has moved a Bill to repeal abortion law.

Feminists and their supporters have campaigned for decades to remove abortion from the NSW Crimes Act and treat the procedure as a health issue. For decades, they have been told “now is not the right time”.

Finally, NSW MLC Mehreen Faruqi has moved a repeal Bill.

The Abortion Law Reform (Miscellaneous Acts Amendment) Bill, revealed on May 5, would remove sections 82–84 of the Crimes Act. It would also provide a 150 metre safe access zone around abortion clinics and service providers. As well, it would place the onus on doctors to disclose if they had a conscientious objection to the procedure.

“Abortion has been a crime in NSW since our criminal laws were drafted over 100 years ago. Only through the interpretation of case law and the tenuous presence of narrow exemptions are abortions permitted in New South Wales,” Faruqi said.

“The ongoing criminalisation of abortion restricts the availability of access, and stigmatises and shames those who require termination services.”

A NSW Greens factsheet said: “Women and all people seeking abortions, as well as their doctors, remain vulnerable to prosecution for unlawful abortion, and removing it from criminal law will provide certainty to patients and doctors about their rights to access these health services. Abortion access remains under attack, for instance through the dangerous 2013 Foetal Personhood Bill (“Zoe's Law”) that came close to passing in parliament. Abortion must be unambiguously legal in NSW.”

NSW and Queensland are the last two states where abortion remains a crime, although women have had access because the law stipulates doctors can provide one if a woman's physical and/or mental health is in serious danger.

Children by Choice, a 40-year-old non-profit organisation based in Brisbane, notes that common law interpretations of the Crimes Act or the Criminal Code have allowed abortions in most states. But, it adds, this is not satisfactory because women and their doctors can, and have been, prosecuted for procuring abortions.

A doctor and anaesthetist from Brisbane's Greenslopes clinic were charged with providing unlawful abortions in 1985 following police raids on the clinic. A couple in Cairns were tried and acquitted of procuring an abortion in 2010.

These traumatic cases fuelled independent MP Rob Pyne's decision to introduce a private member's bill on May 10 to take abortion out of the Crimes Act in Queensland.

Some, including in the Labor Party, say that now is not the time. However, Labor MLC Penny Sharpe did initiate a private member's bill on May 4 to amend the Summary Offences Act 1988 to provide for safe access zones around reproductive health clinics.

Tasmania, ACT and Victoria have recently decriminalised abortion and enacted safe access zones.

Abortion law reform has widespread support in the community, as a Greens-initiated survey undertaken in September by Lonergan Research established.

“Abortion should be decriminalised, and we must stop the harassment and intimidation of people accessing abortion services,” Faruqi said.

The alternative means fighting a never-ending battle against the fundamentalist anti-women laws that Christian Democratic Party MLC Fred Nile wants to introduce.

Nile is not going to stop his anti-woman campaign. Since May 5 last year, he has been pushing for a suite of new anti-choice laws that require women seeking abortions to: be informed that the procedure may cause pain to the child in utero; undergo counselling and to view an ultrasound of their unborn child; report the pregnancy termination; and prohibit terminations “on grounds of sex or racial makeup of an embyro or foetus”.

Nile has not given up on his bill, referred to as “Zoe's law”, which involves amending the Crimes Act 1900 to “prohibit conduct that causes serious harm to or the destruction of a child in utero and for other purposes”. This is a back door attempt to restrict women's rights by focusing on the supposed “rights” of the foetus. It has been defeated before, but while abortion remains on the books as a crime, Nile and his supporters have a bigger platform to confuse people about his intent.

If NSW decriminalised this health procedure, supporters of the right to choose would not have to be fighting rearguard actions, like Nile's bills, and would have a more solid legal basis on which to extend women's reproductive rights and allow women to have the final say over what is, essentially, a private issue.

[Susan Price is standing for the Socialist Alliance in the Senate in NSW. Dr Faruqi is hosting a public meeting on abortion rights on June 6. Click here for more details. ]

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