New laws to legalise abortions were passed by the Northern Territory parliament on March 21. The bill passed by 20 votes to four after a lengthy and emotional debate.
The new laws mean the NT joins the ACT, Victoria and Tasmania in decriminalising abortion and stands in stark contrast to NSW and Queensland, which have Australia’s most restrictive abortion legislation.
Prior to the new act, abortion remained in the NT Criminal Code, but it was modified by the Medical Services Act, which made abortion lawful up to 14 weeks. The act was passed in 1974 and had not been reviewed or updated since.
Its requirement that abortions must be performed in hospitals and not clinics limited availability, as there are so few hospitals in the NT. Women in remote areas had to travel hundreds of kilometres to Darwin or Alice Springs to access an abortion. They also had to be examined by two doctors, including a specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist.
The NT was also the only Australian jurisdiction where using the RU486 pregnancy termination pill was still a crime.
But with the passing of the Termination of Pregnancy Law Reform Act, a woman less than 14 weeks’ pregnant now only needs to be assessed by one doctor before she can access an abortion. Between 14 and 23 weeks, she must be assessed by two doctors. Abortions will only be performed after 23 weeks if it is necessary to save the woman’s life.
The legislation also decriminalises abortion, by replacing the section of the Criminal Code making it an offence to provide an abortion or supply a woman with abortion drugs, with a clause prohibiting an “unqualified person” from inducing an abortion.
“Safe zones” of 150 metres around clinics will be established, allowing women access to services without fear of harassment. Women up to nine weeks pregnant will be able to chemically trigger a miscarriage at home using RU486 after consulting a doctor.
Medical terminations will also be able to be performed in day surgeries and specialist clinics and qualified doctors other than specialists will be able to provide the service. Doctors who conscientiously object to performing terminations will be compelled to refer women to another doctor.
The Health Minister Natasha Fyles said in passing the bill the government had delivered on an election commitment to Territory women.
Labor members were allowed a conscience vote on the issue and the opposition Country Liberals supported the changes. Labor's Gerry McCarthy and independents Terry Mills, Mark Guyula and Gerry Wood opposed the bill.
The bill prompted an emotional debate, with many MPs arguing the morality of abortion, rather than the legislation. Wood, a staunch Catholic, equated abortion to domestic violence and said the reforms will take the NT back to "the Dark Ages".
"We talk about stolen generations,” he said. “But if the Territory is losing 600 to 1000 unborn Territorians each year, isn't that a stolen generation lost each year? Why don't we make a fuss about that?"
Abortion reform advocate and Darwin GP Jacqueline Murdoch said “There will always be people who want to discuss abortion in general. That’s unfortunate, because abortion has been legal in the NT since 1974. This bill is about improving access, not the morality of abortion.”
Much of this debate and when a similar bill was debated but not voted on last year, focused on its impact on Indigenous women, particularly those living in remote communities.
Labor member for Arnhem Selena Uibo told parliament she stood “as a young Aboriginal woman who wants the same rights as my fellow female Australians in every other state and territory”.
Uibo said she was appalled that the bill was being diverted from an issue about gender equality into one about race.
Namatjira MLA Chansey Paech tabled a media release by Margaret Tighe of the Melbourne-based Right to Life, which he described as “offensive and racist”. The release said “widespread provision” of terminations would “be seized upon by those who wish to control the Aboriginal population because of the rising cost of Aboriginal welfare”.
“Her ignorance of this bill and of the reality of access to safe reproductive health services by Aboriginal women living in remote communities is apparent,” Paech said.
The new laws are expected to be in place by mid-year, coinciding with the release of clinical guidelines, which were not available for public consultation before the debate.