Although it is one of the most commonly performed medical procedures in the world, abortion is still a crime in Victoria under the 1958 Victorian Crimes Act. Women have only been able to access abortion because in 1969 Justice Menhennitt ruled that a doctor could perform an abortion if continuing a pregnancy endangered the woman's life or health.
On September 9, the Victorian parliament will start debating the Abortion Law Reform Bill 2008, which will decriminalise and regulate abortions up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.
While the bill is a step in the right direction it leaves the most vulnerable women in limbo.
Women needing an abortion after 24 weeks will have to seek the permission of two doctors. Post-24 week terminations will be inserted into the Health Professions Registration Act. This perpetuates legal uncertainty for doctors who carry out late-term abortions as they potentially face murder charges if it is deemed that the "appropriateness" of a termination has been incorrectly assessed.
The overwhelming majority of abortions are carried out within the first trimester and, according to the Victorian Law Reform Commission, less than 1% of abortions are carried out after 20 weeks.
The small percentage of women who need late-term abortions are the most vulnerable women. Many are teenagers, or victims of incest or sexual assault; they might be suffering from mental illness or intellectual disability or experience a sudden tragic life circumstance or discover a foetal abnormality. Difficulties in raising the money for a termination can also push women towards a late abortion, especially women from rural areas.
However, under the proposed new law, doctors may be reluctant to carry out late-term abortions for women in need. In Western Australia, a board of doctors refused to allow a teenage refugee girl, who had been raped, from accessing an abortion in case they faced criminal charges.
There is already a severe shortage of doctors in rural areas. How are vulnerable women who need late-term abortions in these areas going to find two doctors to approve an abortion?
Restricting abortion based on pregnancy length takes away a woman's control over her body and autonomy over her life. Women will be paternalistically ruled by a small group of doctors or politicians making choices for them.
History shows that abortions are a necessity and when restricted or made inaccessible, women's lives are put at risk. Thousands of women across the globe die unnecessarily every year from backyard abortions.
While abortion remains the second-most commonly performed surgical procedure for women in Victoria — and one of the safest — the majority are carried out in private clinics, making them much more expensive. There are only three medical facilities in Victoria that perform late-term abortions. Two are public facilities and one is private.
Public opinion polls over several decades have repeatedly shown that the overwhelming majority of the population supports women's right to choose whether or not to terminate their pregnancy.
The results of a survey by Crosby/Textor released on August 18 reveal that the majority of Australians support a women's right to access abortion after 24 weeks and oppose sanctions against doctors carrying out an abortion after 24 weeks.
A 2003 poll by the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AusSSA) found that 77% of religious respondents supported a woman's right to choose, and out of 1000 Catholics interviewed, 72% were pro-choice.
By opposing the full decriminalisation of abortion, the state government of John Brumby is caving in to a tiny minority of religious fundamentalists to the detriment of all women.
The impact of pregnancy and childbirth on a woman is so great that no matter what other political, social or economic rights women have, if they do not have control over whether or when to have children, it is meaningless to speak about women controlling their own lives.
Women's right to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy must be non-negotiable.
The ACT and Canada have decriminalised abortion completely, so why not Victoria?
The Socialist Alliance supports the full decriminalisation of abortion and calls for the Abortion Law Reform Bill to be amended to remove any restrictions on late-term abortions.
We also encourage our readers to sign on to the statement produced by the Socialist Alliance that calls for the full decriminalisation of abortions in Victoria.
[Karly Oliver is a Victorian Socialist Alliance member and abortion rights campaigner. For more information visit http://www.socialist-alliance.org.]