By Rose McCann
SYDNEY — Call to Australia Party leader Fred Nile has foreshadowed yet another attempt to restrict women's access to abortion in NSW.
Nile, narrowly re-elected to the state upper house on May 25, with less than 4% of the overall vote, is a right-wing Christian fundamentalist ideologue. He is well known for his obsessive hatred of homosexuals and his attempts in particular to close down the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, his calls for the banning of so-called obscene works of literature from the high school curriculum and his opposition to abortion rights.
Opposition to expressions of human sexuality outside the procreation model seems to be the common thread in his stance on all these issues.
Nile has reportedly gained support from both the Liberal-National Coalition and the Labor Party for debate on his bill when it is introduced and a "conscience vote".
The bill will be modelled on former Liberal backbencher Guy Yeoman's
bill of 1989 which lapsed because of lack of support in the upper house. If passed, it would restrict abortion services to a limited number of specified public hospitals.
The intention would be to close down all free-standing non-profit clinics, which currently provide 80% of the abortion services in NSW. Doctors who perform abortions anywhere other than designated hospitals would be charged with professional misconduct and fined up to $5000 for each offence.
According to Pam Simons of the Women's Electoral Lobby, the government would be forced to allocate more than $45 million per year to the public health system if it was to become the only provider of abortion.
The likelihood of the Greiner government doing this is slight. Yeoman's bill also included a provision that the specified public hospitals could seek exemption from providing pregnancy terminations, which would even further restrict women's access to this vital service. It is likely that the Nile bill will incorporate this clause.
Such a law would also lead to later and therefore more dangerous terminations because of inevitable delays in referral by doctors to an already severely overtaxed and under-resourced public health system.
It would be less likely that women would receive the level of care and post-operative counselling and contraceptive advice that the independent clinics are currently able to provide as a matter of course.
According to the Women's Electoral Lobby, maintaining confidentiality would be much more difficult in public hospitals. Because of carelessness in the keeping of records, anti-abortion forces have in the past been able to gain private information about women who have had terminations there. A couple of years ago, for example, the Right to Life organisation got details of a woman who had had a termination at Westmead Hospital and harassed her through mail sent to her home address.
According to Susan King, a clinic worker and member of the Women's Abortion Action Campaign, Nile is contemplating a second bill, along the lines of an Unborn Child Protection bill, which would require the enactment of a legal definition of when human life begins. But there is believed to be much less support among members of the major parties for debate on this thorny question. Nile has, however, signalled that he will continue introducing anti-abortion bills in one form or another throughout his eight-year term.
Women's right to choose abortion has been a key demand of the women's liberation movement since its inception. Feminists consider it the bottom line in terms of the ability of women to control their lives.
Throughout Australia, access has been improved because of liberal interpretations of the law, but abortion is still technically a crime. While this remains the case, access to abortion will always remain under threat from conservative attempts, through either the courts or parliament, to take away the reforms won in recent decades. A strong campaign to repeal all abortion laws remains an urgent task for women's and other progressive organisations in this country.