Queensland law review excludes abortion

October 30, 1991

By Anna McCormack

BRISBANE — In a few months the Queensland Criminal Code Review Committee will release its second report recommending changes to Queensland's 90-year-old Criminal Code. As with the committee's First Interim Report, this document will not recommend any changes to the laws against abortion. In fact, these laws will not even be mentioned.

Queensland's anti-abortion laws have been excluded from review by the state Labor government. The anti-abortion laws are the only ones in the Criminal Code which have been left out of the review, apart from those already being reviewed by other government bodies.

Anti-abortion laws were singled out for exclusion from the review at the direction of the state attorney-general Dean Wells. In an interesting display of double-talk, Wells described the review as "comprehensive" and "thorough", claiming it would be a "blueprint" for all other states to follow. At the same time, Wells has persisted with his direction to review committee members that they leave alone sections 224, 225 and 226 of the Criminal Code outlawing abortion.

The "comprehensive" review was announced in April of last year when Wells appointed the review committee. Queensland's Criminal Code had operated unchanged since 1901, and the newly elected Labor government considered it was time to review it in the light of contemporary social conditions.

In his foreword to the First Interim Report of the review committee, released in March, Wells highlighted two principles on which the committee based its recommendations for change. These are:

  • Criminal law "should reflect contemporary attitudes and ideas of the society in which that law has to operate".

  • Some sections of the Criminal Code are outdated or "have been found to be inadequate by judicial decision".

The irony of highlighting these two principles in particular has seemingly been lost on the attorney-general. Both principles are particularly relevant to the need to repeal the abortion laws and thus to facilitate women's right to choose.

Contemporary attitudes towards abortion rights are clear. Most people support women's right to choose. The national survey carried out in March 1991 by AGB-McNair found that 81% of Australians believe abortion decisions should be left to the individual woman and her doctor. The Queensland survey carried out in May 1990 by AGB-McNair found 66% support for abortion law repeal.

Clearly, if Queensland's Criminal Code is to "reflect contemporary attitudes", then abortion has no place in it.

A similar conclusion would follow from the second principle used by the committee. In 1986 Queensland followed Victoria (1969) and iberal judicial interpretations of the term "for the preservation of the mother's life" as the sole permissible criterion for legal abortions.

In the 1986 case, Judge McGuire ruled that "mother's life" meant psychological health as well as physical life. A jury acquitted two doctors charged with procuring an illegal abortion on the basis of this ruling.

While this 1986 judicial decision did not, of itself, find the abortion laws "inadequate", the consequences of that decision are telling. At the time of the McGuire case, two abortion clinics operated in Queensland. Today there are four. It is apparent that the increased numbers of clinics indicates a decreased concern by clinic owners about the likelihood of criminal charges being laid.

Thus, by the Criminal Code Review Committee's own guiding principles, the Queensland abortion laws are inappropriate.

It is time that Queensland women were offered an alternative to the profit-oriented private clinics that are currently the only medical centres where abortion is available in the state. The Brisbane-based Women's Abortion Campaign argues that abortion should be available as one of many services provided by women's health centres. Such centres should be publicly funded and run by women, in the interests of women.

The campaign has recently presented a submission to the review committee urging it to ignore the attorney-general's direction and recommend to the government the repeal of Queensland's abortion laws. Other women's groups are being encouraged by WAC to present similar submissions.

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