History lives on in Queensland abortion law

Caroline De Costa.

Never Ever Again
By Caroline de Costa
Boolarong Press, 2010

A teenager and her boyfriend are catapulted to national notoriety when they are charged with procuring an abortion under Queensland’s archaic Criminal Code. Their identities are plastered across the internet, their home is fire-bombed and religious zealots shriek triumphantly from the pages of the local rag. Is this Caroline de Costa’s latest novel? Think again. Welcome to Cairns in 2010.

The October 2010 trial of a young Cairns couple is the catalyst for prodigious author Caroline de Costa’s non-fiction work Never Ever Again.

Although abortion has been legalised in the ACT and decriminalised in Victoria, it remains illegal in Queensland under the 1899 Criminal Code.

Succinctly written and painstakingly researched, Never Ever again traces the history of abortion law in Australia and the background to the current case in Cairns. Far from being a dry historical tome, this book sweeps the dust off archived records of the personal and often tragic experiences of women in the past 100 years. It tells the forgotten stories of women who died agonising and lonely deaths from illegal, unsafe backyard abortions, too fearful of arrest and imprisonment to ask for medical help.

De Costa has a knack for animating facts and “legalese” as she describes the morbidity and mortality of illegal abortion in the 20th century; the Menhenitt and Levine rulings that eventually paved the way for safe abortions in some states; the tragi-comic raids on abortion clinics in Queensland in the 1980s and the 1986 McGuire ruling — the thread that abortion providers in Queensland cling to.

The book follows the ducking and weaving of politicians attempting to pacify anti-abortionists despite most Queensland voters favouring decriminalisation. It describes the dogged pursuit of the young Cairns couple by the DPP and police, and the Queensland government’s muzzling of doctors.

The book describes the present legal farce in Queensland, in which pregnant women can undergo Medicare-funded testing for foetal abnormalities but cannot legally terminate a pregnancy on the grounds of foetal abnormality.

As Never Ever Again illustrates, prohibition does prevent women from seeking abortion. Abortion needs to be safe and legal. The discussion we need to have about why unplanned pregnancy rates are high in Australia is continually hijacked by a debate about the rights and wrongs of abortion. Never Ever Again points out that countries with liberal abortion laws, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, also have the lowest rates of abortion.

Until our law-makers can be as rational and balanced as de Costa, our energies will sadly be consumed defending our right to have, or not have, children by choice — without the threat of jail.

Regardless of personal feelings on abortion, I would encourage anyone who wants to understand the issue to get this comprehensive and highly readable book.

And when you’ve finished reading it, perhaps lend it to your local MP.