“It is simple, straight forward: stay out of the lives of women”, implored one Liberal MLA as debate in the NSW Legislative Assembly on a bill to decriminalise abortion entered its second day on August 7.
Eventually, after eleven and a half hours of debate, the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019 was passed in the lower house 59 to 31 on August 8.
Speaking to Green Left Weekly the day after, NSW Greens spokesperson for women Jenny Leong said it was clear from “listening to more than 60 speeches and 12 hours of debate on amendments that the issue was deeply personal for everyone”.
“By realising this reform, we will empower all women, all people to be able to make this deeply personal decision for themselves — without the ominous threat of criminal sanctions hanging over them."
Drafted by Independent MLA Alex Greenwich, and sponsored by a cross-party alliance that included Liberal health minister Brad Hazzard, the bill aims to take abortion out of the Crimes Act 1900.
But anti-choice MPs, including NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman and former minister for women Tanya Davies, did their best to add extra layers of regulation by moving 14 amendments, all of which health professionals said would complicate the procedure for those seeking and providing abortions.
At the start of the debate on August 6, Hazzard urged colleagues not to support amendments, as medical and legal professionals had been extensively consulted in the drafting process.
The Legislative Council decided that same day to set up a week-long committee to examine the bill, thwarting conservative MLC Fred Nile's efforts to delay a vote until later in the year.
Anti-choice MPs were trying to reduce down the number of weeks in which women would be able to procure an abortion. The bill allows terminations to be performed by certified medical practitioners up to 22 weeks, but requires women wanting an abortion after that to seek the approval of two doctors, something many say is unnecessary.
Some 94.6% of abortions occur before 13 weeks. Less than 1% of abortions take place after 20 weeks and do so with multidisciplinary care.
Other anti-choice amendments sought to reduce the onus on doctors with conscientious objections to refer the patient on; enforce a rule that doctors performing an abortion (generally a simple procedure) are specialists; and ask hospitals to set up new “advisory committees” to deal with abortions after 22 weeks.
In the end, amendments on informed consent and conscientious objection for doctors were approved. Also approved was an amendment to ensure that specialists perform late-term abortions and only in approved public facilities.
The bill still has to go to the Legislative Council, but it is expected that anti-choice MLCs will not have the numbers to weaken it.
Leong said: “This is a significant step forward on the road to decriminalisation of abortion in NSW — a long overdue reform — that owes its progress now to decades of feminists, pro-choice activists and women’s organisations leading this struggle and push for change.”
The fact that the Coalition and Labor give their MPs a conscience vote on abortion has helped maintain a two-tiered system in NSW since the early 1970s.
All Australian states and territories have decriminalised terminations of pregnancy, except NSW and South Australia, where it has only been partially decriminalised.
The issue is not complicated. The bill has received support from many religious, legal, medical and feminist organisations.
The only complication arises when MPs put their conservative ideology ahead of women’s lives.