'Stay out of the lives of women', NSW MPs implore in debate over the right to choose

Supporters of choice outside the NSW Parliament on August 6. Photo: Pip Hinman

“It is simple, straight forward: stay out of the lives of women”, implored one Liberal MLA as debate in the Legislative Assembly on a bill to decriminalise abortion in NSW entered its second day on August 7.

It is unclear when the bill drafted by Independent MLA Alex Greenwich, which has been broadly sponsored by a cross-party alliance, will go to a vote as some MPs are saying they want to move amendments to it.

A series of amendments have already been moved by state Attorney General Mark Speakman. Pro-choice Liberal MPs, among others, have described them as “red herrings” aimed at delaying and confusing matters.

Liberal health minister Brad Hazzard, a co-sponsor of the bill, used his speech on August 6 to urge colleagues not to push for amendments as medical professionals had been extensively consulted in the drafting process.

The Legislative Council decided that same day to set up a week-long committee to examine the bill, thwarting conservative MLC Fred Nile's efforts to delay a vote until later in the year.

Anti-choice MPs directed their fire at the proposition that 22-weeks’ gestation is “late-term” and that women could not be trusted to make such a decision.

However, the current bill requires women wanting an abortion more than 22 weeks into a pregnancy to seek the approval of two doctors, something many say is already unnecessary.

Some 94.6% of abortions occur before 13 weeks. Less than 1% of abortions take place after 20 weeks and do so with multidisciplinary care.

Other amendments seek to: reduce the onus on doctors with conscientious objections to refer the patient on; enforce that doctors performing an abortion (generally a simple procedure) are specialists; and ask hospitals to set up new “advisory committees” to deal with abortions after 22 weeks.

However, the bill already addresses these issues.

The bill provides for terminations to be performed by certified medical practitioners up to 22 weeks and in certain circumstances after 22 weeks. 

It requires any registered health practitioner who has a conscientious objection “to disclose the objection and refer the person to another practitioner who does not have a conscientious objection.” 

It also makes it an offence for a person who is not a medical practitioner to terminate a pregnancy.

NSW Pro-Choice, which represents more than 70 organisations, urged MPs on August 7 to oppose the amendments on the basis that they will have a “strong limiting impact on services and inappropriately intervene in the professional standards of health workers”.

“They present a worse situation than the status quo” and “if successful would ensure that NSW would have some of the most restrictive laws in the country”. 

NSW Pro-Choice chair Wendy McCarthy said that removing abortion from the Crimes Act was the aim and that the amendments “would obstruct that goal”.

The Australian Medical Association NSW has backed that position, saying the bill "risks being derailed by unfounded fearmongering on abortion". 

"The amendments being floated within the parliament would seek to regulate and control the action of doctors and women and delay treatment for people who need it."

The Human Rights Law Centre's spokesperson Edwina MacDonald said that an amendment to remove patient autonomy from 20 weeks would be damaging and add to the distress of women confronted with fatal foetal abnormalities that can only be confirmed at 20-22 weeks. 

She said that proposals to restrict where abortions can happen would delay access to the procedure and care, and that asking a "hospital committee" to consider a woman’s situation is extremely "misguided" and "dangerous".

Some MPs have argued that they have not been given enough time to consider the bill. 

However, NSW Greens MLA for Balmain Jamie Parker pointed out this is disingenuous, considering that a bill was presented two years ago by then Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi, and that the state government regularly pushes through bills it considers urgent.

The fact that the Coalition and Labor give their MPs a conscience vote has helped maintain a two-tiered system in NSW since the early 1970s.

All Australian states and territories have decriminalised terminations of pregnancy, except NSW and South Australia, where it has only been partially decriminalised.

The issue is not complicated. The bill has received support from many religious, legal, medical and feminist organisations. 

The only complication arises when MPs put their conservative ideology ahead of women’s lives.

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