BY JOSEPHINE HUNT
CANBERRA On the evening of August 21, the ACT Legislative Assembly voted nine to eight to take abortion out of the Crimes Act and repeal other anti-choice legislation, giving the ACT the most progressive abortion (non-) law in Australia. The decision made with the welcome but unexpected support of Liberal Helen Cross marks the culmination of a long campaign for women's right to access abortion.
Years of pro-choice campaigning in the ACT intensified recently, spurred by ALP MLA Wayne Berry's motion to repeal the laws. Berry has pushed for the legalisation of abortion for a decade. The August 22 Canberra Times quoted Berry as saying that, although it had been a long campaign, he had always enjoyed community support and that "another campaign of vigilance to protect these gains has just begun".
Cross, whose vote broke a deadlock in the assembly, described considering abortion a crime as an "archaic notion", according to the ABC's web site on August 21. She told the August 22 Canberra Times that she had "agonised over her decision, sought a large amount of information and tried to weigh the views objectively" and that she had "heard enough sad tales from all quarters. Tales of grief, ignorance, desperation, of despair, of shame. Enough to persuade me to support the legalisation of abortion."
Abortions performed in the ACT will now have the same basic legal status as other medical procedures, for any of which, informed consent is necessary. In addition to this, however, Labor MLA Katie Gallagher introduced amendments to several acts which specifically deal with this procedure. For example, an abortion must be conducted in an approved facility by a qualified medical practitioner and late-term abortions must be approved by a hospital ethics committee.
The legal situation which now exists, however, is a stark contrast to the previous draconian legislation. This included a section of the Crimes Act which allowed for a prison sentence of 10 years for women having abortions or for doctors performing them. Before August 21, abortion providers in the ACT relied upon NSW legal precedents, untested in ACT courts, which legalised abortions where there was a serious risk to the woman's health, in order to operate "legally".
The other legislation repealed on August 21 was the so-called "Osborne act", which required a 72-hour "cooling-off" period before a woman who requested an abortion could access one and "information" that must be provided to women considering abortions. This information, like the legislation which made it mandatory, was significantly weighted in favour of the decision to continue with a pregnancy instead of having an abortion, and the existence of a cooling-off period reiterated this anti-choice message.
Pro-choice activists hope this victory in the ACT will inspire others across Australia to fight for the right to choose, and that other victories for women's rights will follow.
From Green Left Weekly, August 28, 2002.
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