Is the abortion law reform in Victoria enough?

September 20, 2008

The Victorian Abortion Law Reform bill was passed by the parliament's lower house on September 12 after more than 70 hours of debate. This may finally mean that abortion is removed from the state's Crimes Act dating back to 1958. Until the bill is passed, abortion remains a crime.

The state's upper house will begin debating the bill on October 7, and the vote is likely to be close. The outcome could go either way, with anti-abortion campaigners intensifying their campaign against any liberalisation of abortion laws.

If the bill is passed, it will be a big step forward: all restrictions on abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy will be removed. However, the bill still places restrictions on abortions carried out after the 24 week stage by requiring women to get the approval of two doctors.

Abortion law is different in each of the states and territories of Australia, with the Australian Capital Territory allowing women the full right to choose when it comes to their reproductive rights. The ACT is the only state or territory to fully legalise abortion with no restrictions.

The Crimes (Abolition of Offence of Abortion) Act 2002 was passed by the ACT Labor government with the help of the Greens and independents. There is no evidence that abortions have increased in the ACT as a result of removing abortion from the criminal code.

Placing legal restrictions on abortions does not affect the number of abortions that occur. What it does is make them more unsafe, according to the World Health Organisation, leading to a higher rate of infections, infertility and even death.

A further example of progressive abortion laws can be found in Canada where the law against abortion was first liberalised in 1969 and in 1988 the Supreme Court removed it completely from the criminal code. In 1967, when abortion was still a crime in Canada, Dr Henry Morgentaler lobbied to change this law.

Morgentaler believed women had a basic right to abortion. Under the law at the time, abortions were only supposed to be performed in hospitals, with the permission of three doctors.

After hearing of the high number of deaths resulting from illegal abortions, Morgentaler began performing safe abortions in clinics. He was charged and sentenced to jail. This galvanised a movement for abortion rights, with women from all over Canada taking part in a national protest.

After two days of protesting, the parliament was closed for the first time as a result of 35 women chaining themselves to the parliamentary gallery.

Groups such as the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League remain dedicated to defending abortion rights in Canada today. Since the legalisation, pro-choice activists have been able to focus on campaigning for safe and affordable abortions to women who are now able to seek these procedures in a far greater number of clinics, health centres and hospitals throughout rural and urban Canada.

As a result of this legislative change in Canada the maternal mortality rate there is the lowest internationally for early abortions. The overall abortion rate is lower than most developed countries.

The Canadian example disproves the argument put forward by anti-choice campaigners that legalising abortion would encourage more abortions.

The Abortion Law Reform Bill currently before the Victorian parliament doesn't go far enough and should remove all restrictions on abortions at all stages of pregnancy, as the ACT and Canadian legislation has done.

Although late-term abortions are rare, the reasoning behind them is usually complex and related to situations beyond the woman's control. The restrictions that the Victorian Abortion Law Reform Bill puts on abortions carried out after 24 weeks of pregnancy place women who need these abortions in a difficult position.

If the bill is passed, doctors who carry out late-term abortions can still be liable for professional misconduct if they fail to appropriately consider "relevant medical circumstances" including the condition of the foetus. The same provision does not exist for abortions before 24 weeks. This will make doctors more nervous about approving late-term abortions.

By placing the ultimate decision about late term abortions in the hands of two doctors, the Abortion Law Reform Bill assumes that women do not take responsibility for their actions and do not have the ability to make the right decisions about their life.

Instead of placing restrictions on late-term abortions, the Victorian government should have the courage to implement reform that reflects public opinion. Recent opinion polls indicate that 84% of Victorians support the removal of all restrictions on abortions, regardless of the stage of pregnancy.

These issues will be discussed in a public meeting on September 25, 6pm at Trades Hall. Speakers include Greens MLC Colleen Hartland, Liberty Victoria vice-president Anne O'Rourke, Professor Roger Short and Socialist Alliance spokesperson Mary Merkenich.

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