Campaign against anti-abortion laws grows

March 18, 1998

By Sarah Stephen and Trisha Reimers

With the recent charging of two doctors in Perth for performing an abortion, the issue of women's right to control her body and her life has once again made it into the headlines of major newspapers and television news shows.

It is the first time anyone has been charged under the WA laws for 30 years, and the arrest has shocked and angered huge numbers of women, many of whom only now realise that what they considered a fundamental right is, in fact, illegal. Although the case became public only six weeks ago, the doctors involved had been under investigation for several months.

In mid-February, 200 people attended a protest action outside the court where the doctors were charged. The action, involving women and men and organised at very short notice, demanded the dropping of the charges against the doctors and the repeal of the abortion laws.

The 500-strong International Women's Day march and rally in Perth on March 7 was the first major opportunity for many women to show their support for decriminalisation of abortion. This was done in the context of the many other attacks being made on women's rights at present. A banner demanding "Repeal all anti-abortion laws" led the march, which was made up a wide range of groups and individuals who support women's right to choose. The Christians for Choice contingent, for example, marched behind a colourful banner, amongst a sea of purple balloons.

Another march and rally of 500 people took place at the opening of state parliament on March 10, this time in the pouring rain. The 15-minute march of drenched but determined protesters through the city streets to Parliament House chanted "Not the church, not the state, women must decide our fate", "Women have the right to choose, repeal abortion laws" and "What do we want? Repeal!".

The rally was chaired by Billie Corti from the Public Health Association. The speakers included long-term abortion rights campaigner Joan Williams, who recounted her experience of an illegal backyard abortion; Melbourne barrister and author Jocelynne Scutt who scathingly denounced the government's "tick-a-box" abortion legislation as unworkable and highlighted the ridiculousness of trying to determine whether or not a pregnant woman was in serious physical or mental danger.

The rally was also addressed by a representative of Christians for Choice who made the crowd erupt in applause when she said: "It's raining down on us today. Some may take heart that this is further proof of the misguidedness of our cause, but I say God herself is weeping for us." Health worker Dr Judy Straton also addressed the rally, as did Labor MLC Cheryl Davenport.

That afternoon, Davenport introduced a private member's bill to the upper house, in front of a gallery packed with observers. The bill calls for the repeal of the state criminal code's section 199, which makes doctors liable for up to 14 years' jail for procuring an illegal abortion; section 200, which makes a woman liable for up to seven years' jail for procuring her own abortion; and section 201, which makes anyone assisting or supplying anything that might be used to procure an abortion liable to a maximum of three years' jail.

Liberal MHR June van de Klashorst declared on March 10 her willingness to introduce Davenport's bill in to the lower house on two conditions. The first is that the bill is passed by the upper house. The second is that she judges the bill has majority support in the lower house.

Davenport's bill, by proposing the removal of offences related to having or performing an abortion from the criminal code, would leave the control of abortion under existing health regulations.

Initially, her bill received a great deal of media attention. However, the introduction in the lower house on the same day of a government bill on abortion law by Attorney General Peter Foss soon absorbed media attention. The government's "abortion reform bill" does not intend to repeal laws relating to abortion on the criminal code, but rather offers five options that MPs can choose from.

Option one would allow abortion in circumstances where a woman's physical health is at risk, while option two would allow abortion in cases where a woman's physical or mental health is at risk. These sections would put into law the 1969 Davidson ruling in Victoria.

Option three would have allowed for abortion when the foetus has genetic abnormalities, however it has been withdrawn by the government after pressure from anti-choice campaigners who have been running a scare campaign hinged on "opening the floodgates for women to engage in 'social cleansing'".

Option four would allow abortion if a woman was to suffer serious personal, family, social or economic consequences if forced to go through with the pregnancy. This option would put into law the 1971 Levine ruling in NSW.

Option five is characterised as "informed consent", but it is unclear whether the parameters of access would still be set out in the criminal code, including compulsory counselling, or whether it would mean full decriminalisation.

Debate on the two bills is set to begin in parliament on March 17. Liberal, Labor, the Democrats and the Greens will all allow their members a conscience vote on the bills, despite the latter three parties' on-paper support for decriminalisation. All politicians are clearly feeling significant pressure to change the law.

Having initially taken a pro-choice, pro-repeal stance, the West Australian newspaper in particular, and media coverage in general, has shifted in the last week to portray liberalisation of the laws as the sensible "middle ground". Repeal of the laws is now being presented as the "extreme" position in the debate.

The media campaign for liberalisation, rather than decriminalisation or repeal, significantly misrepresents public opinion. A February survey conducted by Westpoll asked the question, "Do you think that the law in WA should be changed to make abortion legal?". Eighty-two per cent of respondents answer yes, 11% said no and 7% were undecided.

Partly in response to the shift in media coverage, the Association for the Legal Right to Abortion (ALRA), in consultation with Jocelynne Scutt, has drafted a proposal for repeal which details which laws which would cover the procurement of abortion if it was removed from the criminal code.

The proposal, which has been distributed to all members of parliament, introduces stiffer penalties under the Medical Act for anyone adverting their services or performing the operations of a trained medical practitioner without the necessary training. ALRA is proposing that the penalty includes a fine and a jail term of one to two years. Proposed changes to the Health Act would require the notification of all abortions that are performed (for the purposes of monitoring and research).

On March 6, ALRA officially launched its "Repeal the laws — campaign for choice" campaign.

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