Abortion rights campaign rebooted in Queensland

March 25, 2017
Pro-abortion rally in Brisbane on March 1.

On March 22, the day after the NT parliament legislated to decriminalise abortion (see page 4), doctors in Queensland called on the state government to follow suit.

Nineteen doctors who are current or recent providers of abortion throughout the state went public with a letter to the state premier, deputy premier, Attorney-General and minister for women. They urged the government to take the steps needed to remove abortion from the criminal code and regulate it in health legislation, in this term of parliament.

Three weeks before, Independent MP Rob Pyne had withdrawn his bills to decriminalise and regulate abortion. The bills were due to be debated in parliament on March 1. At the same time, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, Deputy Premier Jackie Trad and Attorney-General Yvette D'Ath announced they would refer the issue to the Queensland Law Reform Commission (QLRC) and introduce legislation in the next term of government to “modernise” abortion law. At time of writing, that referral has not been made.

In their letter, the doctors pointed out to the ministers that “the passage of legislation through the next parliament will be entirely dependent on the composition of that parliament, which has yet to be determined, and ... you may not be in a position to honour your promise.”

They expressed concern that by putting off reform until the next Labor government, there is “the possibility that legislative reform of abortion may be delayed for five years or even longer.”

They urged that the referral to the QLRC be made “in a timeframe of no more than six months, requesting repeal of sections 224-226 of the Criminal Code and regulation of abortion practice in the health legislation, so that this matter can potentially be resolved within the life of the current parliament.”

They pointed out that a lengthy consultation period is not required since research has already been prepared for the two recent parliamentary health committee inquiries and in other jurisdictions.

They outlined the detrimental impact of delaying law reform on patient access to abortion and provision of health care according to medical standards of practice.

On the same day, Cairns doctors involved in the provision of abortion services released a statement about the crisis in abortion service availability for women in Cairns and regional Queensland.

They revealed that Cairns women were being flown to Sydney to access surgical abortion, with all the additional stress and costs that entails.

“Safe affordable accessible abortion services are essential to the reproductive health of all Queensland women,” the statement read.

“Tacitly, but not overtly, the current government acknowledges this, by funding medical abortions in Cairns, and by providing funds to keep Townsville and Rockhampton abortion services open when the [private] services in those towns were faced with the need to shut down because of the high cost of providing fly-in fly-out doctors to run them.

“However ... Queensland Health itself refuses to establish effective and accessible public services and the result is a very fragile and piecemeal service everywhere north of Nambour, and no service at all west of Brisbane.

“Part of the reason for this is the continued refusal of governments over many years to address the urgent need for reform of 19th century Queensland abortion law. This is the essential first step to making abortion part of mainstream medical practice, as it is now in other Australian jurisdictions where the law has been reformed.

“We call upon the Queensland government to put Queensland women at the centre of this discussion and to address urgently both the immediate need for surgical abortion services in Far North Queensland, and the greater need for reform of abortion law to bring it into the 21st century.”

In another initiative, the Brisbane-based Women's Abortion Rights Campaign (WARC) launched a petition along the same lines, calling for the QLRC referral to be made and for abortion to be decriminalised this year. Within the first 48 hours, the petition had reached 600 signatures.

It marks a renewal of public campaign initiatives following the unexpected withdrawal of the bills from parliament. The campaign group is planning a picket to decriminalise abortion this year, an abortion rights contingent in the May Day march and an activist training day.

Anna McCormack, spokesperson for WARC, said, “We're more determined than ever to increase our efforts and pressure on both the Labor government and LNP opposition, as it's becoming more and more obvious we've had unacceptable delays and our interests are being sold out, especially since just yesterday, in the Northern Territory both sides of politics had no problem at all passing decriminalisation.”

[Kamala Emanuel is an abortion provider working in Queensland and a signatory of the open letter. She is an activist with the Socialist Alliance and Women's Abortion Rights Campaign.]

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