Doctors call on premier to decriminalise abortion in the current parliamentary term

Activists camapaigning for abortion rights in January
March 22, 2017

Nineteen doctors who are current or recent providers of abortion services in Queensland have signed a letter to the state premier calling for abortion decriminalisation to be resolved in the current term of parliament. This follows another delay in achieving legal reform after private member's bills were withdrawn earlier this year.

The signatories include an overwhelming majority of doctors performing abortion in Queensland.

In a separate move, activists have began collecting names on a petition calling on the government to decriminalise abortion this year.

The text of the doctors' letter is below.

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Dear Premier

We write as doctors currently or recently involved in the provision of abortion to Queensland women, in connection with the announcement of your intention to refer to the Queensland Law Reform Commission the question of abortion law reform in Queensland.

We note from several media reports that you have promised to bring legislation to reform abortion law, based on the report from the QLRC, to the next parliament. We respectfully point out that the passage of legislation through the next parliament will be entirely dependent on the composition of that parliament, which has yet to be determined, and that you may not be in a position to honour your promise. There is therefore the possibility that legislative reform of abortion may be delayed for five years or even longer.

As practitioners of reproductive health care for women some of us are often engaged in complex cases where women need accurate diagnosis, in state-of-the-art facilities, of fetal or maternal medical conditions impacting on pregnancy. The training for this specialty is long and arduous; the work itself, though often rewarding in individual cases, is extremely demanding physically and emotionally. Despite the fact that diagnosis of fetal abnormality is offered to all Australian women in the first half of pregnancy, appropriate care for women who receive a diagnosis of  lethal or serious fetal abnormality, or of a major medical condition in themselves, can be very difficult to access in Queensland. Those of us who provide early surgical and medical abortions likewise are often confronted by women in very difficult social, domestic and medical situations who need our help in other aspects of their health and social care as well as the provision of abortion.

However behind every Queensland doctor involved in the provision of termination of pregnancy lurks the spectre of sections 224-226 of the Criminal Code.  Despite the numerous submissions of all relevant medical professional bodies to both the parliamentary committees conducting the two recent inquiries, and the excellent summaries of submissions provided in the reports of these committees, there seems to be a significant lack of understanding among parliamentarians about the realities of abortion provision in Queensland in 2017, and the difficulties faced by women who are poor, young, of certain ethnic backgrounds, living in rural or remote areas, or indeed all of these, in accessing abortion. There is an overwhelming need to bring Queensland law into line with 21st century medical and abortion practice, and thereby help make abortion accessible to all women.

We respectfully request that, given your now-public commitment to abortion law reform and your undertaking to refer the matter to the QLRC, you do so in a timeframe of no more than six months, requesting repeal of sections 224-226 of the Criminal Code and regulation of abortion practice in the health legislation, so that this matter can potentially be resolved within the life of the current parliament. It is clear from the Report of the Committee into the first Pyne Bill that there is majority community support for repeal of these sections of the Criminal Code, despite the Committee not being able to recommend that the Bill be passed. Three committee members, all LNP MPs, have dissociated themselves from the report of the second Inquiry because of possible legal uncertainty over the wording of the second Bill.  We believe that the report ultimately received from the QLRC will deal very adequately with these Members’ concerns.

While we appreciate that the QLRC must undertake their own research we note that the many people who made submissions to both recent parliamentary inquiries will be well placed to resubmit their views to the LRC in a timely manner. The  reflections of the parliamentary committee members will also be available to the LRC as will the Report of the Taskforce looking at Women and the Criminal Code commissioned by the Beattie government in 2002, the report of the Victorian Law Reform Commission (2008); and reports to and from the two houses of the Tasmanian parliament from 2012-2013. From the QLRC website we understand that the LRC is currently looking at only one reference, the Domestic Violence disclosure scheme, which must be reported on by 30th June, and that the LRC has four legal officers on staff. We note that the excellent and comprehensive Report of the Inquiry into the first Pyne Bill was prepared by your own parliamentarians in five months, during which time the Members had many other responsibilities to attend to. We therefore believe that a six month timeframe is a reasonable request for the LRC to address the urgent matter of abortion law reform in Queensland.

We note your own recent and very positive approach and that of your Cabinet to this issue. We note that abortion law reform has long been part of the Queensland ALP platform. Such legislative change has already been achieved by ALP governments in Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT; it is more than time that it happen in Queensland. We represent more than 90% of doctors providing abortion services in Queensland and we are conscious on a daily basis of the urgent need to change the law in order to bring abortion care into mainstream medical practice.

As doctors our responsibilities are first and foremost to the women we care for, the women of Queensland. While we continue to be constrained by 19th century law we are unable to offer them the quality of care they deserve in the 21st century. We call upon you and your government to reform this antiquated legislation once and for all.

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