Queensland locked in abortion stalemate

October 19, 2009

In early September, most abortions performed in Queensland health facilities came to a halt. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists had passed on a legal opinion to their members that said doctors were still at risk of prosecution while abortion remained in the criminal code.

Meanwhile, the ALP state government moved changes to section 282 of the criminal code. The changes widened the legal defense for doctors that perform abortions if the woman's life is at risk. Both medical and surgical terminations are now covered.

However, abortion remains a crime for the doctor, the woman and any person assisting, such as nursing staff, under the law. For this reason, Queensland doctors have not resumed performing terminations of pregnancy.

For the past six weeks, Queensland women have had their access to safe terminations restricted. Some have travelled interstate or overseas to access abortion services.

This kind of "abortion tourism" is common in countries like Ireland or Poland, but it hasn't existed in Australia for many years.

Queensland premier Anna Bligh has restated her opinion that abortion is a private matter, but has resisted calls to make the legal changes to allow this.

The recent charges laid against a young Cairns couple for procuring an abortion have shown that Queensland women have absolutely no right to privacy to make a decisions to end a pregnancy.

The couple has had their names and pictures splashed across the mainstream media.

A Cairns nurse, who wished to remain anonymous, told Green Left Weekly many health professionals fear women have been deterred from accessing abortion services through the health system because of the publicity surrounding the Cairns court case.

This creates the dangerous potential for more young women to procure abortions outside the health system rather than consulting a doctor.

As in the past, women with greater access to money might be able to organise their own travel for a termination while poor women often pay with their lives.

Having to travel miles away from home also can raise suspicion for family and friends and can deny a woman any privacy in accessing a termination.

GLW spoke to another Cairns resident, former British MP Dr Peter Jackson. In 1967, Jackson was the whip on David Steel's abortion bill. The bill liberalised access to abortion in Britain. He was also a member of the British Abortion Law Reform Association.

He said he is "amazed that Queensland still has a 19th century statute criminalising abortion and that a young woman and her partner are being charged in Cairns with the attempt to terminate her pregnancy.

"Frankly, I find it difficult to believe that in this day and age, the state in which I have chosen to live and in which I expect to die — I am 80 — denies women the right to choose as to whether they wish their pregnancy to go to term."

Jackson said now is the time to take action in Queensland. With motivation and organisation the groundswell of public support on the issue can be tapped to make sure Queensland law respects, and doesn't continue to violate, women's rights.

He also said politicians should not be fearful of the small minority of religion-inspired anti-choice voters. In the 1970 election, after the abortion reform bill was passed, his constituency had the smallest swing against him in the whole northwest of England.

In fact, Jackson predicted the Queensland ALP faced a greater electoral risk if it did not show leadership on this issue, particularly from women voters.

The ALP's failure to decriminalise abortion, as women's rights activists demand, angers most Queenslanders.

The Cairns nurse said: "I think that there are people with power who are having a huge impact on women's lives. The current government seems to lack the strength to change legislation to reflect up-to-date medical practice, which is all the more disappointing given that the premier is a woman.

"If this issue were affecting middle-aged white males, then no doubt legislation would be swiftly changed."

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