A private member’s bill was successfully passed on November 21 last year to remove abortion from Tasmania’s criminal code.
Tasmania has joined the ACT and Victoria in decriminalising abortion. Until then, the criminal code set out the limitations of when an abortion is not lawful and when and how it can be lawfully obtained.
Mandatory counselling was also imposed on women. These limitations were so restrictive that abortion access was minimal and women and doctors faced the real or perceived threat of criminal charges being laid against them.
With decriminalisation, the issue is now considered a health matter similar to the provisions of the Victorian legislation passed in 2008. Victoria’s legislation is now under attack by the Liberal government.
In Tasmania, pregnancy terminations can now take place up to 16 weeks with the woman’s consent. After that, terminations can be approved on medical or psychological grounds if two doctors agree.
Doctors and counsellors opposed to abortion will now be compelled to provide women seeking abortion with a list of other doctors who provide abortions and to provide supportive services and information of the full range of pregnancy options and a list of prescribed health services.
In addition, the bill introduces what is known as “access zones” for those doctors and clinics who provide abortion services so that it is unlawful to protest, film or intimidate those seeking abortions within 150 metres of a clinic.
This provision has proved necessary in Victoria where Right to Life and other anti-women forces have picketed and harassed clinics and women, leading in one instance to the murder of a clinic security guard in Melbourne.
The process and time involved in the bill’s passing was lengthy. It took seven months of parliamentary deliberation. The bill was passed by the Tasmanian lower house in April last year, and was finally passed in the upper house on November 20 after a debate lasting more than six hours.
The upper house delay was caused by the bombardment of misinformation and myths about abortion by the conservative anti-choice lobby. The Right to Life group even sponsored a tour in late August by Bette Grande, a Republican representative and extreme anti-abortion campaigner.
Grande introduced two bills in the US state of North Dakota which, if passed, would be the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country. One bill bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy — the earliest that an unborn foetus’s heartbeat can be detected. The other prohibits abortion because of genetic defects.
Doctors performing abortions in these circumstances face up to five years in jail and a $5000 fine.
The bills are tied up in legal challenges since state laws regarding abortion in the US are subject to the 1973 federal US Supreme Court decision known as Roe v Wade. This national ruling judged abortion is legal up to 22 to 24 weeks, based on a doctor’s determination of viability of a baby outside the womb.
The Tasmanian upper house took the time to consider the information and evidence provided by pro-choice activists and this led to the final vote of nine to five to support the bill in principle.