Queensland pro-choice bill faces set-back

September 1, 2016
Pro-choice protest outside Queensland parliament
Pro-choice protest outside Queensland parliament, May 10 2016.

Pro-choice activists in Queensland have expressed disappointment at the release of a parliamentary report on August 26 that failed to support the bill before Queensland parliament to decriminalise abortion.

In a public statement, advocacy group Pro Choice Queensland said: “The bipartisan Health, Communities, Disability Services and Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Committee's report into abortion law reform concludes reform is needed, but is unfortunately indecisive about what that reform should be.”

The bill was introduced into parliament in May this year by independent MP for Cairns, Rob Pyne. It was referred for consideration to a parliamentary health committee.

After reviewing 1400 submissions and hearing more than 31 hours of evidence and perspectives, the committee compiled a comprehensive report on current abortion law in Queensland, laws in other Australian jurisdictions, regulation of abortion by medical professional bodies and the Queensland health department and relevant international human rights law.

It describes current abortion practice in Queensland, community attitudes towards abortion, approaches to reducing the need for abortion, the health effects of abortion, abortion and young people, counselling, conscientious objection to providing abortion and other issues.

Key findings of the report include that the current law, which makes abortion a criminal offence except in the case of serious medical or psychological risk to the woman, is out of step with current medical practice. It points out that there is majority support for abortion to be readily available to women who seek it, although that support declines with advancing pregnancy duration.

The report found that decriminalising abortion would bring Queensland into line with Australia's international treaty obligations regarding the rights of women and children.

It outlined a number of possible approaches to the law, not arguing in favour of any of them directly, but merely against the adoption of the decriminalisation bill.

In summarising their objections to the bill, the committee highlighted community concerns about the need to regulate late term abortion and referred to concerns about protecting conscientious objectors.

In light of existing regulations and codes, they do not stack up as reasons to maintain the existing criminal status of abortion.

Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the College of Medicine at James Cook University Dr Caroline de Costa said: “These regulations would not suddenly disappear because abortion was no longer a crime. Medicine, and particularly abortion, is heavily regulated by Health and Hospital Service Boards, professional standards and clinical guidelines, licensing, and medical insurers to name a few. Doctors need clarity, and we have been waiting too long for someone in parliament to do something about it.”

The report argues that decriminalisation alone would do nothing to improve access to abortion for children unable to provide consent for themselves and that it would leave unaddressed the issue of protests outside services where abortion are offered.

These are important issues, and they should be addressed. But without providing a clear way forward, they do not seem so much reasons not to put the bill before parliament as reasons to support any additional legislation that may be put forward to address them.

The bipartisan report's recommendation against the bill makes it less likely to be passed at this time. However, an additional bill, which addresses some of the concerns about gestation raised by the committee — including gestational limits, safe access zones around abortion facilities and conscientious objection — was introduced by Pyne on August 17 and is yet to be considered by the committee.

Regardless, pro-choice activists are planning to continue their campaign to ensure women in Queensland have equitable access to legal abortion.

[Kamala Emanuel is a medical practitioner working in reproductive and sexual health services, and an advocate for abortion decriminalisation and access. She is a member of Socialist Alliance.]

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