Abortion is women's business

August 30, 2008

On September 9, the Victorian parliament will start debating the Abortion Law Reform Bill 2008. The bill will make abortions up to 24 weeks of gestation lawful.

Despite overwhelmingly public support for a woman's right to choose to have an abortion, it is still a crime under Victorian legislation. Women have been able to access abortion only because in 1969 Justice Menhennitt ruled that a doctor could perform an abortion if continuing a pregnancy endangered the woman's life or health.

While the proposed bill is a step in the right direction, it is inadequate for the small number of women who seek abortions after 24 weeks. According to the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC), less than 1% of abortions in Victoria are carried out after 24 weeks.

The bill stipulates that termination beyond 24 weeks' pregnancy will be regulated by the Health Professions Registration Act 2005 and can be carried out only if two doctors independently decide that it is appropriate. In assessing "all the relevant medical circumstances", doctors have to take into account the medical condition of the foetus.

In the August 24 Melbourne Age, Associate Professor Justin Oakley from Monash University's Centre for Human Bioethics said that a doctor would have to consider the viability of the foetus when determining the "appropriateness" of an abortion.

"A woman has the right to say what should happen to her own body and I don't think because a foetus could be born alive that she therefore loses that right", he said.

Doctors performing "late-term" abortions could face murder charges if it is deemed that they incorrectly assessed the "appropriateness" of the termination.

The bill is based on Model B of three options proposed by the VLRC. Pro-choice activists have been campaigning for Model C because it gives women the decision-making power through all stages of pregnancy and fully recognises a woman's authority over her body.

Liberty Victoria vice-president Anne O'Rourke told Green Left Weekly that its submission to the VLRC argued for no laws governing abortion, which should be regulated no differently to other medical procedures. In the ACT there are no laws governing abortion.

According to O'Rourke, the proposed bill will make it easier for doctors asked to perform an abortion after 24 weeks' pregnancy because the wording is fairly flexible.

"The more the government clarifies the wording, the more restrictive it becomes. The way that it is written at the moment leaves some room to move … but it does still require two doctors to approve the abortion after 24 weeks, so in that sense it's restrictive", she said.

"We are concerned that [state parliamentarian] Christine Campbell is pushing for mandatory counselling to be included in the bill, and also that women should get permission from a panel of doctors instead of two doctors", O'Rourke continued. "As it is now, it will be relatively easy to get two doctors [to give permission] in the city, but it may be more difficult in rural areas."

NSW abortion doctor and Socialist Alliance activist Kamala Emanuel told GLW that it is disappointing that the Victorian government is not supporting full decriminalisation of abortion. "Only complete decriminalisation affirms that a pregnant woman has full human rights, including the right to determine whether and when to bear children", she said.

Emanuel called on women to campaign strongly for full decriminalisation: "Let's make it impossible to ignore the call for complete decriminalisation. The chance won't come again soon, so don't let the politicians off the hook with their conscience votes and compromise legislation.

"Pro-choice politicians should amend the bill so that it removes all reference to the stage of pregnancy."

Reproductive biologist Professor Roger Short told GLW that it is completely "unacceptable" that the bill "trusts a woman and her doctor to make the decision only up until [24 weeks' pregnancy]. Why put additional hurdles in their way after that time?"

Short said that the later in pregnancy a woman decides she can't continue with it, "the more distressing it is for her, so why load the agony on her by putting a whole lot of further restrictions?"

"It's women who have to make the decision. I don't think any man has the right to gainsay the woman's decision. She should be supported by the medical profession", Short continued.

"I was very impressed to hear the great British obstetrician Sir Dugal Baird proposing a fifth freedom as being 'the freedom from unwanted fertility'. And that's what it is, a tyranny of unwanted fertility."

A rally calling for full decriminalisation of abortion has been called for September 6 at 1pm outside the Victorian state parliament. For more information, phone Debbie on 0425 733 256.

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