New bill looks set to overturn NSW’s archaic abortion law

One of the largest pro-choice rights march for years was organised in Sydney on June 9. Photo: Peter Boyle

A decades-long feminist campaign to remove abortion from the anti-woman NSW Crimes Act is likely to take one more step towards victory with debate on a pro-choice private members' bill to begin in state parliament on August 6.

Independent MP for Sydney Alex Greenwich introduced the Reproductive Health Reform Bill 2019 on August 1. His bill has the support of the Coalition's health minister Brad Hazzard.

This is a strong indicator that the NSW Coalition has the numbers to pass the bill, even though it will give its MPs a conscience vote (as will Labor).

The bill is being co-sponsored by MPs from the Nationals, the Liberals, Labor, NSW Greens and the Animal Justice Party. It is the first co-sponsored bill to ever be introduced into the Legislative Assembly and has the most co-sponsors in NSW parliament history.

Pro-choice protesters rallied outside parliament on July 31 to affirm that the bill should to be supported by NSW MPs because a clear majority believe abortions are a medical procedure, not a crime.

Speakers included NSW Pro-Choice Alliance chair Wendy McCarthy, Labor MLC Penny Sharpe, Greenwich, Green NSW MLA for Newtown Jenny Leong, Our Bodies Our Choices’s Jananie Janarthana and Tessa Oxley, a paramedic from Western Sydney and Health Services Union member.

Leong told Green Left Weekly that the Greens had been involved in "conversations about the development of the bill" and that Labor had been involved in its drafting.

It has largely been modelled on the Queensland law adopted on October 16, which allows for abortions up to 22 weeks into a pregnancy, and afterwards with the approval of two doctors.

Grassroots campaign

Leong said in a July 28 statement: “It's past time for women to have the right to make decisions about their bodies.

“If we succeed in getting this change through the NSW Parliament, it will be the culmination of a campaign that our mothers, indeed our grandmothers, feminists and pro-choice activists have been fighting for over generations.”

In a separate statement released that same day, Greenwich said: “The bill ensures women in NSW have access to safe and lawful terminations without the threat of criminal convictions and provides doctors with the legal clarity they have long sought.”

Socialist Alliance national co-convenor Susan Price told GLW: “It's about time women in NSW were able to access abortion without fear of persecution.

“The momentum behind this bill is the result of decades of campaigning by pro-choice activists in NSW and elsewhere.”

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the bill would “create a new criminal offence under the Crimes Act for those who assist in terminations who are not authorised to do so” with a maximum penalty of seven year's imprisonment.

It also said that while a doctor must administer the abortion, the bill specifically states that women who procure an abortion are not committing a crime.

SMH noted that a committee comprised of three MPs — Trevor Khan (Nationals), Penny Sharpe and Jo Haylen (Labor) — had helped draft the bill. 

It reported that while doctors will be able to refuse to provide abortions, they must refer women to a doctor who will perform the procedure. This will allow NSW Health to fund services, including Family Planning NSW and Marie Stopes, to provide outpatient and day procedure services, including in regional and rural locations.

The Australian Medical Association NSW branch, the Human Rights Law Centre and NSW Pro-Choice Alliance, a newly formed coalition of pro-choice groups, all support the proposed bill.

Our Bodies, Our Choices chairperson Claire Pullen said the bill reflects “the consensus of women’s, legal, medical, health professional and community groups in NSW”.

“We have been meeting with MPs, holding community events, fundraising and rallying to make the case for this change. It’s been a long time coming.

“The majority of people in NSW support the right to access abortion care. It’s time our laws reflected that.

“Abortion is one of the most common medical procedures for women, but it’s expensive and almost entirely privatised. We wouldn’t accept that in any other type of healthcare, nor making potential criminals of patients, doctors and health professionals.

“Access depends on your postcode and your purse and neither is acceptable. We can change that by changing these laws.

“We are lucky enough to have supporters from all over NSW who have been raising these issues with their local members and communities and we will continue to support them to make this change. 

“It’s time.”

NSW Senator Mehreen Faruqi said, “Discriminalisation of abortion law is the beginning, not the end”, adding that once the bill becomes law there will need to be “a sustained effort to increase access and reduce costs, especially for regional and rural women”.

In 2017, three NSW Labor MPs joined with Coalition MPs to vote down a Greens’ decriminalisation bill moved by Faruqi, then a NSW MLC.

Faruqi was criticised back then for pushing ahead with her private member's bill despite knowing that it was going to fail.

In fact, Faruqi’s bill helped alert people to the unjust law and promote the grassroots campaign for access to abortion.

Reaction from the right

While abortion law reform in NSW is welcome news, the anti-choice brigade has not given up. Indeed, it seems to be buoyed by the growing number of US states enacting anti-choice and foetal personhood laws which penalise women for “damage” to the foetus.

They have, so far, unsuccessfully challenged safe access zones in Victoria and Tasmania. 

There are also reports that a number of conservative MPs are seeking to have parts of the Queensland law overturned.

The well-funded and vocal anti-choice minority has also spent up big on billboards and advertising on buses in Cairns, Bundaberg and the Sunshine Coast, along the Bruce Highway in Queensland. They have also targeted Western Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales. 

The campaign, ostensibly about “motherhood”, depicts a pregnant person with the words “A heart beats at four weeks”.

In NSW, a public push back was successful in having the advertisement taken down on the Pacific Highway, with one state minister declaring that he was “appalled” when he saw the ad on the side of a Newcastle bus.

[Another public rally will be held outside state parliament on August 6, the day debate on the bill is scheduled to begin.]