Grassroots campaign obtains historic win as abortion decriminalised in Queensland

October 18, 2018
A rally for abortion rights in Brisbane on October 14. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

In a major victory for women's rights, Queensland's parliament voted to decriminalise abortion on October 16.

The 50-41 vote represents a decisive result given the fierce campaign by right-wing group Cherish Life against changing the law.

The bill was supported by all but two Labor MPs, Greens MP Michael Berkman, independent MP Sandy Bolton and three Liberal National Party MPs, including former leader Tim Nicholls.

Labor and LNP parliamentarians were allowed a “conscience vote” on the bill, although the LNP only decided that its MPs would get a conscience vote a week before the parliamentary debate.

Reports have circulated that LNP MPs were threatened with having their preselections challenged if they supported the bill.

The ALP has only backed putting a bill to decriminalise abortion since early 2017, after failing to deliver abortion law reform despite holding large majorities in parliament for most of the last three decades and having abortion reform as party policy. So Labor politicians can be congratulated for supporting this bill but cannot claim initiative for this reform.

This vote was instead the culmination of a protracted grassroots campaign waged off and on for five decades and persistently from the time of the 2009-10 prosecution and subsequent acquittal of a young Cairns couple under the sections of Queensland Criminal Code that ban abortion.

Under the 1899 law, it was a crime to attempt to undergo or perform an abortion or to provide anything knowing it would be used to attempt abortion.

Attacks on abortion provision were one of the symbols of the corrupt and reactionary Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime that ran Queensland for almost three decades until 1987.

In 1985, Queensland police raided the Greenslopes abortion clinic, seizing thousands of confidential patient files. Police subsequently launched unsuccessful prosecutions against two doctors.

Since then, abortion has had some legal protection in cases where a doctor believed it necessary to avert danger to the pregnant woman’s life or health.

However, legal restrictions have prevented universal access to the procedure and the threat of legal sanctions has made otherwise willing providers reluctant to perform the procedure.

At the time of the Cairns prosecution, the then-Anna Bligh Labor government refused to reform the law.

In response, supporters of the Cairns couple formed a campaign group, Pro Choice Cairns, and initiated a campaign to bring about change. This included lobbying their local MP, Rob Pyne.

Pyne, who supported abortion law reform, was unable to bring legislation to parliament while he remained in Labor.

When Pyne resigned from Labor in 2016 to become an independent, he introduced a private member's bill to completely decriminalise abortion. This would have allowed abortion to be regulated like any other medical procedure.

Faced with a campaign of misinformation, exaggeration and moral panic about opening the floodgates to late abortion, Pyne followed this up with a bill that would have imposed gestational and other limits on the procedure, as well as introducing a protection zone around clinics where abortion is provided.

The bills were referred to the parliamentary health committee, and the inquiry process — which attracted thousands of submissions — was accompanied by grassroots mobilising, both for and against abortion law reform.

The vast weight of opinion among human rights, legal, medical, psychological, nursing and other professional bodies was in favour of decriminalisation.

Just before the bills were due to be debated, Pyne withdrew them. When the bills could have been defeated, the state government instead offered him that it would refer the issue to the Queensland Law Reform Commission. This led to another round of submissions, a new bill, another inquiry and further hearings.

Pro choice campaign groups kept mobilising on the streets to apply maximum pressure on MPs to vote in favour of decriminalisation. This culminated in one of the largest pro-choice protests in Brisbane's history on October 14, with the largest demonstration of the decade-long campaign in Cairns was held on October 13.

The new law is a major step forward for Queensland women and pregnant people.

We deserve access to high quality, evidence-based reproductive health services. This new law makes possible the continuation and expansion of these services without archaic criminal impediments.

The next step is to make abortion free.

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