Abortion rights are unfinished business

March 1, 2018
Abortion rights protest in Brisbane in 2017. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

As women and their allies around the world prepare to strike, rally and march on International Women’s Day, abortion rights are once again on the agenda in many countries.

In Australia, a new movement for abortion rights is emerging. It is a movement that sits within the broader struggle for reproductive justice that includes the right to have and keep children; the right to contraceptive information and healthcare; the right to respect and autonomy when giving birth; and the struggle against forced sterilisation. It is part of the wider struggle for the rights of all women, including trans women. But it's still unfinished business.

In some ways, the movement never went away. In the heyday of the second wave of the women's liberation movement, the struggle for abortion rights was one of the central demands around which women rallied across Australia. Nineteenth century laws made abortion a crime.

Law reform

Protests for law repeal morphed into service provision and advocacy, but although in the 1960s and ’70s, law reform in South Australia and liberal court rulings in Victoria and NSW paved the way for safe abortion services to be established in many states, abortion access is still a postcode lottery.

Nowhere is this more apparent than Western Australia, where abortion was mostly decriminalised almost 20 years ago. Access to publicly-funded abortion services depends on whether or not you live in the catchment area of the small number of hospitals or hospital-contracted private providers that provide abortion in accordance with the principle established in the law — that it be by "informed consent". It is not exactly abortion on demand, but almost.

A lot of abortion law reform has been reactive. From the 1960s to the 1990s in Victoria, NSW and Queensland, court rulings in cases of prosecutions under anti-abortion laws recognised (more or less stringently) circumstances when abortion could be legal. In WA and Tasmania, reform of anti-abortion laws was triggered by charges or police investigations into doctors performing abortion. In each case, rallies and other grassroots public actions were organised to give visibility to public support for abortion rights.

But starting with SA and the Northern Territory, and more recently ACT, Victoria, Tasmania and again the NT, law reform came about as a result of more proactive processes, including legislators working with abortion rights groups and parliamentary responses to law reform commission reports.

Now, the momentum for change keeps growing.

In SA, abortion is accessible in designated hospitals, but only there and only for women who meet the residency provisions. This is a problem for accessing medical abortion, which in other states can be completed at home.

In the NT, those who spearheaded last year's breakthrough decriminalisation, which still retained some restrictions on abortion after 14 weeks and even more after 23 weeks, have pledged to campaign for the full right to abortion.

Tasmanian crisis

At the time of writing, a crisis grips abortion service provision in Tasmania.

In 2001, the feminist-run free-standing abortion clinic closed its doors after medical termination — taking medications to induce a miscarriage-like abortion — began to be offered by some doctors. This led to bottle-necks in the public hospital system. Services stopped completely after a medical student complained to police that unlawful abortion was being carried out in Hobart's public hospital. In response to the crisis, Labor premier Jim Bacon recalled parliament and passed minimal law reform providing clarity that allowed services to recommence and new clinics to be established with legal protection.

Now, after years of private clinic provision of abortions, the much-expanded availability of early medical abortion has again led to a closure of the state's free-standing private abortion services. As a consequence, and in the absence of on-request public hospital services, women unable to obtain early medical abortion once again have to travel interstate for surgical terminations.

The state Coalition government refuses to intervene.

By contrast, state and federal Labor have pledged public funding to establish a hospital-affiliated service to meet the need. If Labor wins the March 3 state election, it must not wait for the election of a federal Labor government to make sure public hospitals provide this needed reproductive healthcare.

If the Coalition remains in power, the crisis and hardship for women needing abortion will be set to continue. As former Australian Medical Association head and Sydney city councillor, Professor Kerryn Phelps put it on ABC's The Drum: “There is no reason why hospitals can't be required to provide the service tomorrow.”

In WA, the state government is considering moves to create protective zones around abortion clinics, in line with similar protections in Tasmania, Victoria and the ACT.

The need for this is most obvious around this time of year, when some people decide that for Lent, the best thing they can do to show their adherence to the guy who said “Don’t judge, so you won’t be judged,” is to “give up” letting people enter abortion clinics without being confronted by “sidewalk counsellors” who want to convince women to continue their pregnancies and clinic staff to find another job.

In the words of one such group of zealots, they want to end abortion “from the inside out” — to reduce the number of people willing to be involved in abortion services until “then there were none”.

Criminal offence

NSW and Queensland remain the only states to keep abortion a crime without spelling out exceptions in the law. In the past two years, there have been a number of rallies and creative actions to build support for abortion law reform in these states. In 2017, both state parliaments failed the test when given the chance to recognise women’s right to decide about this health matter.

In NSW, the Legislative Council voted down a bill to take abortion out of the criminal code and protect women from anti-abortion harassment at clinics. Opinion polling shows majority support for these measures. The bill was introduced by Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi and had wide-ranging support from doctors and public health groups to anti-violence and civil liberties advocates, just not politicians elected to represent the community.

In Queensland, then independent MP Rob Pyne withdrew his bills to decriminalise and regulate abortion when Labor would not bind its members to support them and the Liberal National Party announced its members would all exercise their "conscience" vote to vote against. In return for withdrawing the bills, Labor referred the issue to the Queensland Law Reform Commission (QLRC).

Women’s Abortion Rights Campaign, a grassroots feminist activist group, has organised numerous rallies, pickets, petition campaigns and other activities aimed at building and expressing public support for change. It has initiated a rally for May 26 to mark the global day of action for women’s health, under the slogan “Abortion rights: it’s time”. The rally will call for abortion to be decriminalised and for safe abortion to be free, safe and accessible “on demand and without apology”. The rally will be held at King George Square, from 11am and will come a month before the QLRC is due to report.

Including the call for abortion to be free is an important component of the struggle for abortion rights. The law in Queensland is a serious obstacle to the exercise of the right to determine whether or not to continue a pregnancy. But the lack of services won't be solved by decriminalisation without a commitment by governments to ensure that the public hospital system meets the needs for reproductive healthcare, including safe abortion.

We must insist that Queensland Labor match the pledge of its Tasmanian counterpart and establish reproductive healthcare hubs throughout the state to meet the need for abortion.

While a lot changed with the rise of organised feminist campaigns for abortion rights in the 1970s and activism has continued in a range of forms since then, legality and free access to abortion remains to be won. The right to decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy is a prerequisite for determining the course of our lives. This IWD, we again raise the demand: “Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide”.

[Kamala Emauel is a member of the Socialist Alliance based in Brisbane. She is a doctor who performs abortions.]

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