Anti-choice MPs derail NSW abortion law reform

Pro-abortion rally outside NSW parliament on August 20. Photo: Peter Boyle/Green Left Weekly.

Those opposing the move to treat abortion as a health matter rather than a crime have made their views known — loudly. But the NSW Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019 went to the Legislative Council on August 20 and, despite anti-choicer MPs’ efforts to postpone discussion and a vote, it was passed on August 21 by a decisive 26 to 15. However, amendments will be debated there on September 17.

NSW MPs Robert Borsak from the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, Mark Latham from the Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and NSW Senator Barnaby Joyce, who feels entitled to speak on behalf of all NSW Nationals, have been amplifying their scare tactics.

Joyce’s robo-calls have become the subject of a hilarious twitter campaign, as the “quiet majority” pushes back.

The latest Guardian Essential poll shows 71% of NSW voters support having abortion removed from the Crimes Act.

There is a new and higher level of collaboration among the pro-choice forces as three hastily organised pro-choice rallies outside NSW parliament over the past month attest. A major rally for choice is in its planning stages.

The minority MPs who are pushing the hardest to find something, anything, to amend are in fact against decriminalisation per se. Their tactic is aimed at introducing so many red herrings to the debate that if the bill is passed, it will come with more barriers to access, rather than less.

Borsak wants to introduce an amendment to criminalise “sex-selection” abortions, even though medical professionals, including the Australian Medical Association (AMA), say that while they are opposed to such a practice, there is no evidence this is happening.

AMA vice president Dr Danielle McMullen said on August 15: “The fact that gender selection is such an emotive issue is precisely why this bill’s opponents continue to make this bad-faith argument. The people who are doing this do not care about women, pregnancies or health. They simply see this as an opportunity to put a stop to something they don’t like and place controls back on women under the cover of doing something people broadly support – removing abortion from the Crimes Act.”

In any case, lower house MPs agreed to an amendment by Nationals MP Leslie Williams for a Health ministry review on whether or not sex selection abortions are occurring. It will report back within 12 months.

Christian Democrat Fred Nile has announced he will move amendments to the bill, and vote against it. The same goes for One Nation’s Mark Latham, who wants to ensure that doctors with conscientious objections are not forced to refer patients on. His main concern is for the “religious freedoms” of medical practitioners, to ensure that they “are not made to do anything they regard as morally wrong”.

Some religious speakers at the snap rallies outside NSW parliament have repeated their concern that the health of the person seeking an abortion is paramount and with the right level of care they have to be trusted.

Reverend Dr Margaret Mayman, a Uniting church minister and lecturer in theological ethics wrote in the Guardian on August 12: “Abortion is not a trivial decision, but it is one that women should be able to make free of fear that they will be criminalised by the state, or judged by the church. It is time to trust women.”

There are 42 MLCs in total: more than 6 out of 11 Liberal party MLCs are understood to be opposed to the bill, but most Nationals are understood to be supporters. This is why they are so furious at Joyce and federal MP Matt Canavan’s anti-choice interventions.

The anti-choice Liberals are mustering all the extra-parliamentary support they can, to derail this reform. An anti-choice rally in the CBD on August 20, comprising mostly men, was said to number in the thousands.

Berejiklian has conceded to their demand for “more time” to consider the bill: this is more about finding cracks in the ranks and ramping up the extra-parliamentary pressure to give the anti-choice MPs a better chance of getting red herring amendments though (even though they have made it clear they have no intention of supporting the bill – amended or not).

At the snap action outside parliament on August 20, an activist who signed up to the #ArrestUs campaign spoke about the hypocrisy of the current law and challenged authorities to arrest everyone who has had an abortion.

Children by Choice estimates that between one quarter and one third of Australian women have an abortion in their lifetime. That means that if the current NSW law was to be applied (and it has been, selectively) close to 1 million NSW women (leaving aside doctors, for the moment) have committed a criminal act.

This shows how important it is for the law to catch up with social values. The fact that women are not criminalised comes down to a 1971 common law interpretation by Justice Levine. It means that access has been made easier – for some – but not all.

As so many health and legal professionals as well as feminist campaigners have said, the law needs to change to end the two-tiered system, improve access and remove the stigma surrounding abortion.

The anti-choice forces continue to resist, and no argument or amendment will satisfy them. Their next line of attack will be the introduction of foetal personhood laws, a bill the NSW government has promised to introduce.

[Pip Hinman has been involved in pro-choice campaigns in several states for more than 30 years. She is a member of Socialist Alliance.]