Forum defends abortion decriminalisation bill


On July 28, 80 people attended a public forum to hear speakers in support of state Labor MP Candy Broad's parliamentary bill to remove abortion from the Victorian criminal code.

Currently, women in Victoria only have legal access to abortion through the common law precedent set by the 1969 Supreme Court ruling that stated that abortion is lawful if a woman's mental or physical health is at risk.

Broad argues that "all women should have the right to a safe, legal abortion, and their doctors a right to practise without fear of prosecution". If her bill to remove sections 65 and 66 from the Crimes Act (1958) is passed unamended, for the first time ever, Victorian women would have exactly that.

The forum, co-hosted by Reproductive Choice Australia and the YWCA Victoria, heard from a wide range of panellists including author Kaz Cooke, renowned pro-choice campaigner Dr Jo Wainer, former Australian Medical Association president Dr Mukesh Haikerwal and bio-ethicist Dr Leslie Cannold.

Broad's bill proposes that the medical aspects of abortion be regulated by the Health Services Act (1988), thus making it subject to the same professional standards as all other medical procedures.

While it is expected to be debated and put to a conscience vote some time after the state parliament recommences sitting on August 7, there are moves by other Labor MPs to push for adoption of an alternative "decriminalisation" bill.

Among those pushing the alternative bill is education minister Bronwyn Pike. While claiming to support decriminalisation of abortion, Pike has argued against Broad's bill because it seeks to have abortion treated "like any other medical procedure".

"The 'shadow' bill, the Health Amendment Bill (2007), is not an acceptable amendment", said Wainer, who is a founder of the Association for the Legal Right to Abortion (now the Abortion Law Reform Association).

She explained that the alternative bill "completely misses the point. This amendment still provides for punishment through the legal system of all those involved in the pregnancy termination process, including provisions for a fine of up to $50,000, and up to 10 years' imprisonment for all those involved other than the woman. It takes the 'crime' of abortion from the Crimes Act and re-inserts the 'crime' of abortion into the Health Act. Abortion is not a crime, it is a medical procedure. The general public support a woman's right to choose, and it is time that the law reflected this."

Cannold said: "The proposed amendment would see something like the Western Australian model of abortion regulation. This is far from a preferred model — it imposes restrictions on access to services and is incredibly complex and unwieldy. It is all very well to say that you are 'pro-choice', but what exactly does that mean, if you are still allowing politicians and the legal system to tell women when they may or may not have children?"

Answering the claim that abortion rates will soar if the procedure is decriminalised, Haikerwal told the forum: "It is offensive to suggest that women make the decision of pregnancy termination lightly. It is also offensive, and completely factually groundless, to say that abortion rates will rise if the law is changed. That did not happen in the ACT; and in Victoria, abortions already happen. The 'demand' will not all of a sudden increase. For doctors as well as women, this is about changing the law because as it stands it is a block to doctors giving women the right medical care — care that women have a rightful expectation to receive."

Wainer remarked that a "system that relies on police and prosecutors not to enforce laws that are on the books poses unacceptable risks to women and doctors. It is not good enough.

"Our current abortion law is carried over from an English common law enacted in 1861, and it was designed to protect women from the unsophisticated and largely experimental forms of early surgery, which were very dangerous to their health. It was not designed to protect foetal life — the only way to do that is by looking after the health of women.

"This is about women being legally recognised as possessing the moral agency and authority to make decisions about their bodies and their lives, about having the capability as equal human beings to do so. A woman's right to choose is a basic human right."

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