Abortion: a woman's choice

On March 21, Anna Bligh's election victory night, she answered a question from a journalist about how it felt to be the first female premier to be elected in Australia. She suggested the snide remarks made when she was a young woman, about Queensland being a "backward" state, could now be laid to rest.

Just one month later we are reminded once again that Queensland is the most backward state in Australia when it comes to antiquated and repressive abortion laws. Sections of these laws that have not been used for more than 50 years are now being employed by police and prosecutors.

In Cairns on April 16, a young woman was charged with procuring her own abortion using a drug. Her partner was charged for supplying the drug and assisting her in carrying out the abortion. Their hearing is scheduled for June.

Several Australian states and territories have seen significant developments in abortion laws over the past 15 years, including their removal from the Crimes Act in both the ACT and Victoria. In other states, abortion is still in the criminal code: only in certain situations — such as if a woman's health is at serious risk — can she end the pregnancy legally. However, the laws' interpretation has been significantly liberalised.

Queensland's abortion laws, mostly drafted in 1899, are the oldest in the country.

In fact, Caroline de Costa, an obstetrics professor at James Cook University in Cairns who has been active in attempts to reform abortion laws, told Green Left Weekly the Queensland abortion laws are based upon "the English Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, which was designed to protect women from unsafe backstreet abortions.

"It failed to do this at the time it was promulgated, and it is completely at odds with the contemporary practice of abortion and the views of the majority of Australians who believe that safe, legal abortion should be accessible to all women."

The basis of these antiquated laws was not to protect foetal life, but to protect women from unsafe interventions at a time when medicine had very little to offer.

Times have changed, but a woman's right to have control over her own body and to decide whether to continue with a pregnancy is still deemed to be criminal in most states.

As late as 1985, Queensland's National Party government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen authorised a police raid on the Greenslopes Fertility Control Clinic. Two doctors were charged for carrying out abortions.

The 1986 McGuire ruling subsequently defined legal access to abortion on the same basis as it then applied in Victoria and New South Wales. However, the raid and charges were etched in the collective memory of women in this state, reinforcing the criminalisation of abortion.

In 1989, the ALP, led by Wayne Goss, won power. It was comfortably re-elected in 1992. There was pressure and expectation that the Labor Party would move to reform abortion law.

It didn't. Labor lost government in 1996 but regained it again under Peter Beattie in 1998.

In 1999, the Beattie government instigated the Taskforce on Women and the Criminal Code, which was charged with reviewing how the state's criminal legislation impacted on women. In 2000, the task force recommended the repeal of abortion laws.

The government said it would not implement this recommendation: it considered abortion laws a matter to be determined by the consciences of members of parliament, not an issue of public policy.

Today in Queensland, abortion is mostly provided by a few private centres. Women on low fixed incomes and those living in rural, regional and remote areas of Queensland have little or no access to abortion services due to travel costs.

There is no clear policy around the provision of, and access to, abortion through the public health service in Queensland, so their role is minimal. Providing and accessing abortion is still a criminal offence.

De Costa said: "The incoming Queensland government should follow the lead of Victoria and send the abortion laws to the Law Reform Commission for review — abortion law should be taken out of the Criminal Code and subject simply to the health regulations which deal very effectively with health, including women's reproductive health."

She commented: "There is enormous concern on the part of Cairns doctors about many aspects of [the current legal] case."

Cairns Women's Network (CWN) spokesperson Dr Carole Ford told GLW that decriminalisation is in line with the current Labor Party policy, but, despite winning government, it seems reluctant to address the issue.

The CWN supports the right for women, including the Cairns teenager, to have reproductive autonomy. It is calling on the director of public prosecutions to withdraw the charges because they are not in the public interest.

Ford also urged the attorney-general to refer the issue of abortion to the Law Reform Commission, with a view of removing it from criminal law.

"The decisions a woman may make about terminating a pregnancy, for whatever reason, should be resolved in the surgery, not the courtroom. I encourage all members of the community who share our concern to take positive action to create legislative reform", Ford said.

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