The decades’ long campaign to take abortion out of the NSW Crimes Act is coming to a head. A Greens bill to do this and enact safe zones around abortion clinics will go to the NSW Parliament on May 11.
MLC Mehreen Faruqi’s Abortion Law Reform (Miscellaneous Acts Amendment) Bill 2016 was first introduced last August. Faruqi said it is well past time for abortion to be treated as a health issue, adding that the law needs to be brought into line with majority thinking on this important and sensitive issue.
She has the support of doctors and criminologists who have signed open letters calling for change.
The doctors said: “Abortion is a public health issue, but it remains a crime under sections 82, 83 and 84 of the NSW Crimes Act 1900. One in three women in Australia will have an abortion in their lifetime and it is time to bring the laws in step with medical practice.
“Outdated laws such as this only serve to interfere with the practice of medicine. We implore you to take action now and get rid of this archaic law.”
Law and criminology academics working at universities across NSW agree. Their open letter said: “Abortion is a health and welfare matter, not a criminal issue. People who have an abortion, and their doctors, should not face the risk of criminal prosecution.”
Faruqi’s bill seeks to repeal the offences under the Crimes Act 1900 relating to abortion; abolish any rule of common law that creates an offence relating to abortion; ensure that doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion advise the person requesting an abortion of their objection and penalise those who fail to refer that person to another health practitioner who does not have such a conscientious objection or to a local Women’s Health Centre; and to provide for exclusion zones, also known as “safe access zones”, around premises at which abortions are provided.
Most states and territories now have safe access zones and most have taken abortion out of criminal codes, even if the laws governing abortion vary in their restrictions.
For years, many Labor MPs have been reluctant to support a change in the law. They have argued that change is too risky as more conservative MPs may seize the moment to try to tighten up the legislation.
However, attempts by MPs on the religious right to do this have proved unsuccessful: there is now a view that taking abortion out of the Crimes Act may make it more difficult for conservatives to enshrine foetal rights into law.
There is little disagreement about supporting the safety, well-being, privacy and dignity of people accessing abortion services, a provision of Faruqi's bill. A separate safe access zone bill by Labor's Penny Sharpe is also due to be debated in May.
Sharpe has publicly stated she will support Faruqi's bill, and she told Green Left Weekly she was encouraging her Labor colleagues to do the same. However, as Labor has a conscience vote on the bill, Sharpe also said she could not be certain it would pass either house.