WA abortion law reform

April 8, 1998

By Angela Luvera

PERTH — Deceptive media reports following last week's debate in WA parliament left many people convinced that women should be celebrating the repeal of laws restricting abortion in WA. The West Australian proclaimed "Abortion on demand" and the WA laws have been repeatedly described by the media as "most liberal" in the country.

The lower house of WA parliament passed all four amendments to the Liberal government's Foss bill, including allowing women who have given "informed consent" access to a termination, by 31 votes to 16. In the upper house, the ALP MP Cheryl Davenport's bill for repeal of abortion laws from the criminal code — including amendments to the Health Act — was passed 22 votes to 11. No bill has yet passed both houses of parliament and there will not be a clear conclusion until April 9.

Attorney General Peter Foss's bill liberalises existing criminal law to make it easier to obtain an abortion, but will allow jail terms for women and doctors who perform abortions outside the legislation's guidelines.

Amendments to the Foss bill passed in the lower house require abortions performed after 20 weeks to have been agreed to by two government-endorsed doctors on the grounds of the medical condition of the woman or "the unborn child". Doctors will face a $10,000 fine if they do not offer counselling to a woman considering abortion. Parents or guardians of "girls" under 16 must be told before an abortion is performed.

Amendments incorporated into the Davenport bill are almost identical to those in the Foss bill, although the restrictions on women under 16 are not included. The fundamental difference between the two bills as they now stand is that under the Davenport bill, abortion would be regulated under the Health Act rather than the criminal code.

The danger of a compromise which is more restrictive of women's right to choose still remains. WA's notoriously conservative MPs face an unprecedented simultaneous debate of two bills on the same issue.

"We should be wary of premature celebrations that will disarm people and strengthen the notion that we can trust politicians to pass the repeal bill in the lower house as well", pro-choice campaigner and Democratic Socialist Party member Sarah Stephen told Green Left Weekly. "It puts us on the back foot if the campaign has to be relaunched."

The Association for the Legal Right to Abortion has also taken a cautious approach. ALRA president Margot Boetcher told the West Australian she was reluctant to declare the battle for legal abortion won, but the proposed legislation was a good start.

Whatever the specific outcome, the changes to WA abortion law, forced on MPs by the overwhelming public support for women's right to choose, have set a new precedent for the review of abortion laws in all states and territories, and given more weight to demands that abortion be decriminalised.

Rallies and marches held in Perth and other cities around the country on April 3 and 4 called for the repeal of all abortion laws.

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