On May 10, the MP for Cairns Rob Pyne did what many politicians in Queensland have claimed for the past 30 years could not be done: he presented a private member's bill to decriminalise abortion.
While some members of parliament over the years have claimed to have had a private members bill in their top drawer ready to go, when it came to the crunch these bills never saw the light of day. But it was not due to a lack of evidence from medical, legal and public health experts, who supported removal of abortion from the Crimes Act.
Queensland women have been waiting a long time for change. They have been waiting since 1967, when Britain repealed the original legislation on which Queensland's Crimes Act relied. They have been waiting since 1985, when the Joh Bjelke-Peterson government authorised a police raid on the Greenslopes Fertility Control Clinic and charged two doctors with carrying out abortions. The 1986 McGuire ruling subsequently defined legal access to abortion within certain parameters but also reinforced the criminalisation of abortion across the state.
Labor won power in 1989 led by Wayne Goss. It was comfortably re-elected in 1992. There was an expectation that Labor would move to reform abortion law. It did nothing.
Labor lost government in 1996 but regained it again under Peter Beattie in 1998.
In 1999, the Beattie government instigated the Taskforce on Women and the Criminal Code, which was charged with reviewing how the state's criminal legislation impacted on women. In 2000, the taskforce recommended the repeal of abortion laws. The government declined to implement this recommendation.
In 2009, the Anna Bligh Labor government again used the laws to instil fear in women. A young Cairns couple — she was 19 and he was 21 — endured 18 months of media scrutiny when charges were laid in April 2009 until after a two-day trial in October 2010 where a jury found them not guilty after just 40 minutes.
The Cairns trial, however, mobilised pro-choice activists in the city, who have continued to campaign to change the laws.
About 14,000 women in Queensland make a decision every year not to continue with a pregnancy for many different reasons. The issue has never gone away because a woman's ability to control her fertility is a fundamental right and an essential part of women's equality.
Women bear the brunt of the restrictions on contraceptive choices in terms of cost and availability and also suffer the impacts of sexual violence and coercion. Women must have the right to decide if, and when, to bear children, which includes access to safe medical and surgical terminations of pregnancy. This is something we are still fighting for.
On May 6, Pro Choice QLD launched the “It's not 1899 —Abortion should not be a crime” campaign. Supported by a coalition of organisations and individuals across the state, including health, community and women's groups, it is calling for the complete decriminalisation of abortion in Queensland.
At the launch, Cairns Doctors medical director Dr Heather McNamee said the abortion laws were from a period when women had virtually no rights. “It's from a really ridiculously historical time, so it's completely out of date and it's out of kilter with modern medical practice,'' she told Green Left Weekly.
The problematic nature of the law was highlighted last month when a 12-year-old girl was forced to seek Supreme Court permission to terminate her pregnancy. “The result in Queensland is increased anxiety and reluctance on the part of doctors to be involved in performing abortions, even though we know that around half of all pregnancies in Australia are unplanned,” said Heather Douglas from the University of Queensland.
“The decisions a woman may make about terminating a pregnancy, for whatever reason, should be resolved in the surgery, not the court room,” said Dr Carole Ford from Cairns Pro Choice, one of the member organisations of Pro Choice QLD. “I encourage all members of the community who share our concern to visit www.prochoiceqld.org.au and take action today to help create legislative reform. We need everyone's voices heard on this issue.”
The private members bill — Abortion Law Reform (Woman's Right to Choose) Bill 2016 — presented by Pyne on May 10 has been referred to the Health, Communities, Disability Services and Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Committee and is expected back in the parliament in two months' for a second reading.