Queensland abortion rights under attack

July 2, 1997


By Ruth Ratcliffe

BRISBANE — The Queensland minister for health, National Party member Mike Horan, has launched an attack on women's right to abortion. Horan displayed his ultra-right, anti-woman views on the weekend of June 21-22 when he advocated the implementation of a report, allegedly by a select committee of attorneys-general, which advocated that abortion be restricted.

However, Queensland attorney-general Denver Beanland claims never to have seen such a report. It now seems that Horan was referring to a discussion paper regarding the creation of a national criminal code which advocated the abortion models of South Australia and the Northern Territory, where abortions are available only in some public hospitals.

Horan twisted the findings of this discussion paper to suit his own agenda: to restrict abortion to instances in which the woman would die if the procedure was not performed. He says that abortions happen "too often" in Queensland, and he wants them to become a "rarity".

Because of Queensland's highly restrictive laws, 99% of abortions occur outside the public health system. Horan's desire to make private abortions clinics "a thing of the past" will mean a return to the deadly and traumatic days of backyard abortions.

The situation in South Australia, while not at all perfect, is much better than that in the rest of Australia. Abortion has been removed from the criminal code, and since 1992 abortions have been available through both the public health service and a freestanding clinic. Abortions are available on demand up to 28 weeks of gestation.

This is not at all what Horan has in mind. His advocacy of the South Australian model is, in fact, an advocacy of its problems. Until 1992, there were serious problems with waiting lists for abortions in the public hospital system; hospitals have to seek parliamentary approval to become abortion providers; and doctors and nurses have the right to refuse to perform abortions on the grounds of conscience. A woman's right to control her own body is still highly restricted in South Australia.

Horan has threatened to use his ministerial power to change policy and thus avoid a fight in the Queensland parliament. However, it is unclear how Horan intends to close down private abortion providers.

In 1985, when police raided the Greenslopes abortion clinic, a precarious precedent for safe abortion provision was established in Queensland law. While there are elements within all major parties who would like to further restrict women's access to abortion and while abortion is the only issue on which politicians can vote according to conscience, it is also true that the only bill the Bjelke-Petersen government ever lost related to restricting women's abortion rights.

There remains a strong public sentiment for a woman's right to choose; more than two-thirds of Queenslanders support the legalisation of abortion on demand. Even the Queensland treasurer, Liberal leader Joan Sheldon, not noted for taking progressive stances, defended women's right to "make choices about their lifestyle and their own bodies".

As pro-choice activist Unna Liddy points out, Sheldon's response marks a shift in the debate. While Horan rants and raves about abortion being morally wrong, the more politically astute Sheldon maintains a woman's right to choose.

However, Sheldon's position is compromised by the state government's decision to cease funding to Children by Choice. For 25 years, Children by Choice has provided women with counselling and information regarding their full range of options in the event of an unplanned pregnancy.

Mike Horan said on ABC radio that Children by Choice was losing its funding because it was "referring too many women for abortions". He said funding would be directed to more appropriate "pro-family" services.

The fact that Children by Choice provides supportive, unbiased counselling and referrals to a range of services, a role which is not fulfilled by any other agency, means that women will be very seriously affected by these changes.

Only a few weeks ago, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) released a comprehensive study of abortion by feminist researchers, the findings of which have been largely ignored by both politicians and the establishment press. This was the first time the NHMRC had assessed abortion services since 1937.

The report acknowledged that botched abortions accounted for 20-30% of maternal mortality for most of this century, until the liberalisation of abortion laws in the 1970s and the wider availability of safe services.

The report's major recommendations include: improve access to abortion services, particularly for poor and rural women; provide a mix of private and public abortion services; address the question of under-funding and improve information about abortion services.

In response to the closing down of Children by Choice and the health minister's threats to further restrict women's abortion access, the organising collective of the Network of Women Students of Australia (NOWSA) conference has decided to hold a protest on Tuesday, July 8, to coincide with a "Right to Life" dinner held at Parliament House (see page 29 for details).

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