Abortion: women's bodies, women's lives, women's choice

July 7, 2016
Women are still fighting for the right to medical and surgical abortions.

In the same way that women had to organise and struggle to win the vote, equal pay and access to higher education, women have also had to fight for their reproductive rights, including access to contraception and access to safe medical and surgical abortion.

The impact of pregnancy and childbirth on a woman is so great that no matter what other political, social or economic rights women have, if they do not have control over whether or when to have children, it is meaningless to speak about women controlling their own lives.

The criminal laws that exist in Australian states and territories governing abortion were largely drafted from the British Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, which was designed to protect women from unsafe abortions. The relevant Queensland act, largely drafted in 1899, is the oldest in the country.

Britain repealed these laws nearly 50 years ago. Why do doctors and women still face criminal sanctions, including jail terms, for abortions in Queensland and New South Wales today?

All states and territories, apart from NSW and Queensland, have liberalised access to abortion. Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT have decriminalised abortion.

As the former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Chowdry explained in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 24, there is a compelling argument for the whole country to come into line again. Private members bills are now on the table in both NSW and Queensland parliaments, but there is still the need for a campaign to ensure that a vote is taken and the repeal occurs.

Community discussion, awareness raising, public forums, information sharing and action by women and their supporters will be required to win this campaign.

The marriage equality campaign of recent years shows what kind of concerted campaign is required to achieve a significant social reform. That campaign is still to win, but it has engaged significant layers of supporters in social action.

Conservative groups have learnt lessons from the more polarised debates in the United States regarding abortion access. Anti-choice campaigners know an all-out ban on abortion would provoke massive public opposition. They hope to wind back whatever they can now and lay the basis to remove more later.

In Victoria in May this year, a proposed law to stop women obtaining an abortion after 24 weeks gestation was defeated in the Legislative Council. Supporters of the bill admitted that they opposed all abortion access, but had put forward a bill addressing only late abortion, which they believed had more chance of success.

Whatever the circumstances, restricting or banning abortion based on pregnancy length takes the control of her own body out of the hands of the woman and experienced medical practitioners, who are attempting to support and offer her the same level of care as they would for any of their other clients.

If such restrictions on abortion access become acceptable, the issue shifts away from women's right to control their own reproduction to “getting the timing right”.

Opposition to late-term abortions is often couched in terms of the “need” to “re-examine” abortion in the light of technological developments. But late term abortions are very exceptional, because they are only performed due to significant foetal abnormalities (physical or genetic) or reasonable risk to the mother's current or future medical or psychological wellbeing.

This approach appeals to legislators who have no direct experience of modern medical practice or of women's experience of decision making about abortion. Almost all women — 95% — terminate a pregnancy within the first trimester (up to 12 weeks). The circumstances of women who seek abortions after the first trimester, but not as late as the third trimester, are invariably individual and unique: younger age, being from rural or remote locations, having a disability, drug or alcohol dependence or experience of violence or economic hardship.

The anti-choice lobby is trying to whittle away women's right to abortion. Yet experience shows that when safe, legal, affordable abortion is not available, women still have abortions, but many suffer enormously — physically and mentally — in the process. Some die as a result.

Conservatives oppose the move to repeal laws in NSW and Queensland because the criminalisation of abortion leaves the door open to limit access to this service.

The only way to resolve this is to repeal all legislation specific to abortion. Let the many laws governing medical and surgical procedures cover abortion as well. Then the decision about whether or when to have an abortion can be where it belongs — in the hands of the woman concerned. It is her body and her life, and must be her choice.

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