Repeal all abortion laws now!


By Pip Hinman

Every week they gather to intimidate and harass women entering or leaving the clinic. Armed with blown-up pictures of 30-week-plus foetuses and illustrations designed to upset all but medical and nursing students, the anti-choice campaigners proclaim they are "pro-life". In fact, they care little for the lives of women; their highly emotive and unscientific arguments about the "rights" of the "unborn baby" are aimed at undercutting the most basic of all women's rights — the right to control our reproductive lives.

While these may be small but vocal groups, they do have some powerful backers, and, more importantly, they still have the law on their side.

The prosecution of two Western Australian doctors, in bizarre circumstances, has re-raised the question of why abortion remains a crime in most states.

Until recently, many presumed that abortion was a matter between a woman and her doctor. Not so. While there hasn't been a prosecution in WA for some 30 years, the fact that abortion remains part of the criminal code means that, if found guilty, women and their doctors can be imprisoned.

The laws governing abortion in the other states and territories are similarly reactionary. While they vary, they are all based on British law, which stipulates that a pregnant woman who unlawfully procures an abortion, or someone who helps her or gives her drugs to induce a miscarriage, faces up to 10 years' "penal servitude".

In South Australia and the NT, the laws have been amended to allow abortion under some circumstances. In Victoria, NSW and Queensland, common law rulings (Menhennit, 1969; Levine, 1971; and McGuire, 1986) have interpreted the laws liberally and set legal precedents giving women access to abortion.

Still, abortion is freely accessible — albeit still in a limited way — only to those who live in the major cities; those in rural or outlying areas are subject to the particular religious or other prejudice of local bureaucrats and doctors from whom they may seek advice.

The law in Tasmania has never been tested, and there is only one free-standing clinic in Hobart (after an eight-year campaign). In the ACT, after a vocal and broadly supported campaign in 1992, the 1978 Limited Access Act, based on the SA "reform" model, was repealed, but abortion remains in the criminal code.

In WA, where there are only two free-standing clinics, doctors have been warned not to carry out abortions until the law is "clarified". Reports indicate that women are being advised to go interstate because the waiting list is now at least one month.

Pro-choice doctors there are worried about what they say will be a return to the "dark days" when poor women, desperate and frightened, resorted to dangerous methods to terminate their pregnancies.

In addition, the federal government is about to release a new national model criminal code which will make abortion even more inaccessible. It brings the legal status of abortion into line with the most restrictive of the current state laws — those in SA. There, while abortion has been made legal, it remains part of the criminal code and can be carried out only in designated hospitals (and one free-standing clinic) with doctors and nursing staff having the right to refuse on the grounds of conscience. (In SA, following intimidation by anti-abortion activists, many doctors have decided against performing the 15-minute procedure.)

The new model criminal code also proposes that two doctors' approval must be obtained before a woman can be referred for an abortion — currently the law in SA. This would make access to abortion more difficult and time-consuming for women, especially in rural areas, where there is often only one doctor.

The president of the Abortion Providers Federation of Australasia, Dr Geoffrey Brodie, believes the charges laid against the two WA doctors by that state's director of public prosecutions are an attempt to influence the new criminal code. As he told the February 19 Sydney Morning Herald: "You wonder why it is happening now ... to me the DPP has thrown the gauntlet down to the government and the politicians to come to a clearer understanding of the law."

He may be right. But the issue cannot be left to politicians. The time is ripe — some say it is well overdue — to repeal all abortion laws. In WA, a coalition, which includes church and women's groups, is planning such a campaign. It should be heartened by recent polling in WA which suggests an overwhelming majority support decriminalising abortion.

Since the 1980s, opinion polls have consistently shown majority support for a woman's right to choose. According to Leslie Cannold's new book, The Abortion Myth, this reached a high point in the early 1990s with 81% of Australians favouring freedom of choice. But by 1996, this had dropped to 77%. Even more worrying was a 1995 Morgan Gallup poll which found that only 51% of people aged between 14 and 24 supported choice.

These shifts can be largely attributed to the last few years of backlash propaganda directed against the gains made by the second wave of the feminist movement, combined with a decade or more of austerity which has re-privatised the care of younger and older generations by women in the home.

However, complacency about abortion laws and the refusal by those in a position to organise and lead a repeal campaign has contributed to this decline in consciousness.

It's good that former WA premier Carmen Lawrence and former Labor minister Judyth Watson have denounced the attack on abortion access in WA (and one hopes they are fully involved in the repeal campaign). But, it is also infuriating that when they had the chance to decriminalise abortion, they retreated behind the age-old Labor tradition of allowing a conscience vote.

Similarly, the Queensland Labor Party's policy supports the removal of abortion from the criminal code. But that policy seems to see the light of day only when Labor is in opposition. In government, it always appears to be "the wrong time" to enact the policy.

Rather than upset the status quo and risk a more restrictive set of abortion laws, some Labor women argue, it's better to let sleeping dogs lie.

This is dead wrong. While abortion remains a crime on the books, conservatives such as Queensland independent MP Liz Cunningham have managed to add even more reactionary twists. Last year, her amendment to the criminal code declaring that life begins with conception was passed by the Queensland parliament. Queensland health minister Mike Horan, on record for protesting that abortions happen "too often", has made no secret of his campaign to make private abortion clinics "a thing of the past".

Simply altering the criminal code regulating abortion without removing it from the code is no solution either, as the SA example so clearly shows.

Abortion must be removed completely from all the criminal codes if women are ever to be released from the trauma of not being able easily to access abortion services, let alone information about their options. This would also allow for the expansion of abortion services, which should be regulated in the same way as all other health services.

Today in Australia, two out of every three pregnancies are unplanned. Despite the laws, one out of every three women will have an abortion sometime in her lifetime.

The facts clearly show that while abortion remains a crime, reactionaries can, and are, using the opportunity to further restrict women's access to abortion services; despite their "pro-life" rhetoric, it is this which leads to loss of life. Last year's National Health and Medical Research Council report showed that, until the abortion laws were liberalised, 20-30% of maternal deaths were the result of botched abortions.

Women's bodies, women's lives, women's right to decide!