Abortion is the second most commonly performed surgical procedure for women in Victoria and, according to the World Health Organisation, one of the safest in the world. However it is singled out to be the only medical procedure in the Victorian Crimes Act, making it a criminal offence.
Consecutive opinion polls have confirmed that the law is completely out of step with community attitudes, with 80% of Victorians supporting a woman's right to choose an abortion. Women have access only under common law, through Justice Menhennitt's 1969 ruling that permits abortion when it is necessary to protect the life or health of a woman.
The 2006 Victorian ALP state conference voted to decriminalise abortion, however efforts by individual MPs to put up a private members' bill in support of a woman's right to choose had been consistently thwarted by social conservatives in the ALP.
After mounting pressure from within ALP ranks and community groups, the state attorney-general commissioned a report in September, 2007, on abortion law reform, which was finally tabled in parliament on May 29. Parliament will vote this year on which of the three recommended models for decriminalisation in the Victorian Law Reform Commission's report will be adopted.
The three options advocated vary considerably in scope and the main difference lies with who will be the final decision maker in individual cases and which circumstances make abortion legal.
Leslie Cannold, bio-ethicist and spokesperson for ProChoice Vic, told Green Left Weekly that even though Model A would take abortion out of the Crimes Act, it essentially enshrines the Menhennitt ruling into legislation, keeping the decision about whether a procedure was "necessary" in the hands of the medical profession and the law.
While in Model B a women's consent provides lawful authority for an abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, after that point one or two doctors would have to assess whether the continuation of a pregnancy poses a risk of harm to the woman. According to the report, "risk of harm" would be defined in line with current law and legal decisions since the 1969 Menhennitt ruling.
As in Model A, a doctor who performed an abortion without being satisfied that the continuation of the pregnancy posed a risk of harm to the woman could be prosecuted.
Cannold argued that while Model B is an improvement to Model A, it is still totally inadequate: it treats the small percentage of Victorian women who require a termination after 24 weeks of gestation as incapable of being the ultimate decision makers.
The most progressive of the proposed options is Model C, which essentially makes the woman the decision maker throughout the entire pregnancy. An abortion would only be deemed unlawful if conducted by unqualified people and conducted without the woman's consent.
Cannold agrees with Marilyn Beaumont, CEO of Women's Health Victoria, who told GLW that abortions should not be put into in the Health Act but be subject to the same regulatory mechanisms that already exist for other medical and health service delivery.
"Abortion has to be understood for what it is. It is a safe and simple medical procedure, which is also what the World Health Organisation is saying. Therefore it should not be treated any differently to other medical procedures", Cannold told GLW.
Victorian Socialist Alliance state convener Sue Bolton said that by defining abortion as a crime it has stigmatised the issue and subjected abortion providers and women to vicious harassment by vocal fundamentalist Christians, tragically resulting in the fatal shooting of a security guard at an abortion clinic in Melbourne some years ago.
Bolton also said that by making abortion illegal, the government has limited publicly funded abortion services, thereby adversely affecting women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and rural areas in particular.
Decriminalising abortion is an important step towards women achieving self-actualisation by giving them the right to fully control their fertility and their body.
However any legislative steps to bring abortion in line with other medical procedures has to come hand in hand with increased accessibility and affordability if we truly believe in women's freedom. Even under Model C, the medical profession can impose clinical restrictions. Increased government funding will be absolutely critical to make sure all women will be able to access the service they need no matter where they live, how far advanced their pregnancy or what their socioeconomic background is.
"While it would be a victory to take abortion legislation off the Crimes Act, we have to judge the result not by what's written on paper but by what actual difference it will make to the daily lives of women", Bolton commented.
Even though the majority of Victorians are pro-choice, there is no guarantee that parliament will vote in favour of Model C, the most woman-friendly option. The Greens have already come out in favour of this model, but Labor and Coalition MPs will be able to exercise a conscience vote on the issue.
"We need a strong and vocal public campaign to pressure the ALP state government to vote for the best model for women, otherwise they might well capitulate to the influential minority anti abortion lobby, like they have done in the past", Bolton concluded.