Abortion trial — Cairns activists speak out

October 1, 2010
Photo: Prochoiceactionqld.org

Green Left Weekly’s Angela Walker spoke to Carole Ford, a founding member of Pro Choice Cairns, about the upcoming trial of a young Cairns couple. The couple have been charged under Queensland’s 19th century abortion-procurement laws.

How has the Cairns community responded to this case?

With overwhelming disbelief. I'm sure when most Queenslanders first heard of the charges, they felt as if they had regressed in time.

Many members of the community, including those associated with Pro Choice Cairns, have spent innumerable hours raising awareness and campaigning for abortion to be removed from the criminal code.

Researchers suggest that about 85% of [Queenslanders] support women's right to choose. [It] is a health issue, rather than a consideration for the judiciary.

[Pro-choice campaigners] have experienced extraordinary support from the majority of Cairns residents, with only an insignificant number of detractors. Consistently, women share their personal experiences, express their abhorrence at the “persecution” of this couple and thank us for our efforts.

We have also been encouraged by the number of men taking a positive stance.

Why have these laws remained on the books in Queensland while other states and territories have recently reformed or repealed them?

It would be wonderful if there was some lucid and verifiable reason for the recalcitrance of “the smart state”. Over the past two decades, there have been numerous attempts to repeal or reform the law relating to abortions. What is retained in the criminal code is anachronistic: it is a 19th century law for 21st century women.

Interestingly, the Labor Party, which currently forms the government, has a platform policy that proposes the decriminalisation of abortion. The [former] Beattie [Labor] government in 1999 established a taskforce to look at how aspects of the criminal code impacted on the lives and human rights of women in the state.

The taskforce report included decriminalisation in its list of recommendations, a recommendation absolutely ignored by both the then attorney-general and minister for women.

There appears to be an unbelievable reluctance by the majority of MPs to even express their personal opinion on the need for criminal code reform, a fact verified by the poor MP response to our appeal for information. Normally, personal opinion would not be so significant, but it is evident that any vote would be decided by a “conscience vote”.

This is party-sanctioned approval for MPs to give primacy to their personal stance — based usually on religious persuasion — over the opinion and rights of their own constituents.

What is particularly astonishing is how out-of-step most MPs appear to be with those they supposedly represent, and how little concern they show about it.

Do you expect the Queensland government to review the criminal code in light of this prosecution?

Our campaign has highlighted the lack of leadership by MPs in this discussion. Rather than engage in meaningful discussion with the electorate and their colleagues, it seems most MPs are prepared to hide behind political rhetoric and repetitive spin.

This assault on our credibility starts with a premier who advocates pro-choice positions while retaining criminal conviction as the legal default position in an inept attempt to appease both sides of the choice debate.

What is abundantly clear, however, is that in the existing parliament there is no one with the personal conviction to broach the subject by introducing a private member's bill.
Obviously the rabid anti-choice people preaching religion are identified as more threatening than those who preach the tolerance and integrity of choice!

Yet the impact of the anti-choice machinery that targets individual MPs is extremely problematic. In the recent federal election, some female candidates targeted by the rather quaintly titled Cherish Life [previously Queensland Right to Life] actually increased their electoral margin.

This is in line with most recent research, which suggests that the potential impact of regressive backlash is grossly over-estimated and may actually be misleading.

The women of Queensland need a hero — female or male; Labor, Liberal-National Party or independent — prepared to accept the challenge of creating change, empowered to lobby and inform their colleagues, prepared to collaborate and co-operate with their constituents and prepared for vindictive vitriol.

Do I expect the Queensland government to review the criminal code in the light of this prosecution? Early signs are that heroes are rather hard to find.

What can pro-choice supporters do to support change in Queensland?

Nonetheless, MPs are usually rather pragmatic people. Those who are dismayed by the legal prosecution of the Cairns couple and angered by the paternalistic righteousness of the criminal code need to ensure their own local parliamentary representative acts in a manner informed by community demand.

Pro Choice Cairns is committed to sustained action: we hope to continue raising awareness, enlisting supporters and providing the irrefutable evidence that the vast majority of constituents are uncompromisingly pro-choice.

Please join us. Organise an action in your locality, participate in the courthouse vigil, contact and meet with your local MP, and enlist the support of friends, family and colleagues.

We need to convince each MP that the shameful treatment of women and girls in Queensland is totally unacceptable, and electorally self-defeating.

Change may be slow but change is inevitable.

GLW also spoke to Cairns GP Dr Heather McNamee for a snapshot of medical services available in Far North Queensland before and after the charges were laid 18 months ago.

Abortion services in Cairns have always been very limited and costly, particularly compared to major cities.

One private gynaecologist offered surgical abortions up to 12 weeks gestation, but at a cost approximately twice that charged in major centres. Women pregnant beyond 12 weeks had to travel to either Townsville or Brisbane.

Cairns Base Hospital gynaecologists performed late abortions for foetal abnormalities and the occasional early trimester abortion, but only if the woman had a serious medical condition.

Due to the extraordinary efforts of Dr Caroline de Costa, she and a private gynaecologist had commenced a medical abortion service using Mifepristone — for a limited number of women who met strict medical criteria. Doctors at the Cairns Sexual Health service, frustrated by being unable to gain approval to prescribe Mifepristone and realising the enormous need for more services in Cairns, had also commenced offering medical abortions using an older medication (Methotrexate).

When the charges were laid, all the services were thrown into chaos.

Cairns Base Hospital gynaecologists (on the advice of the College of Gynaecologists) ceased all abortions. Women with foetal abnormalities had to be flown interstate for their abortions. The Cairns Sexual Health Service suspended its medical abortion service on legal advice. De Costa suspended medical abortion services.

After an initial pause for legal advice, the private gynaecologist decided to continue offering surgical abortions.

Currently (following the minor alteration to the criminal code rushed through by the Bligh government) medical abortions are offered by de Costa and the Cairns Sexual Health Service is hoping to gain access to Mifepristone in the near future and recommence its medical abortion service.

Women facing an abortion for foetal abnormality are being forced to see a psychiatrist before being considered for abortion — even for severe foetal abnormalities incompatible with life.

This is an affront to their human rights, let alone a severe insult to their intelligence and a threat to their future access to life insurance etc

While abortion remains in the criminal code, it will never be a decision between a woman and her doctor without outside influence, as the premier states she feels it should be.

All doctors offering abortion (and women accessing them) could still face prosecution, despite empty reassurances from politicians. No one thought this 1899 law would ever be used against a woman — and it has been.

Abortion is a health issue, not a legal issue. This is the situation now in Victoria; women in all states and territories deserve the same basic human rights as Victorian women have finally achieved.

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