NSW MPs vote down abortion decriminalisation, but change is unstoppable

Dr Mehreen Faruqi outside NSW Parliament before the debate on her abortion bill. Photo: Pip Hinman
May 11, 2017

Women have again been let down by the majority of MPs in the NSW Legislative Council who voted down a Greens’ bill to decriminalise abortion on May 11.

The vote was 25 against and 14 in favour of Dr Mehreen Faruqi’s private members’ bill and it was greeted with cries of "shame" from the packed public gallery.

Faruqi said she was disappointed with the outcome and described those MPs who voted against the bill as “completely out of step with modern medical practice, community expectation and laws in almost all other states”. She also said that he law would eventually be changed.

All five Green MPs, 8 Labor MPs and the Animal Justice MP voted for the Abortion Law Reform (Miscellaneous Acts Amendment) Bill 2016. Every Liberal and National Party MP voted against it (even though they had been given a “conscience” vote).

Only one, John Ajaka, put his case, arguing that the change in law was not needed. He said that as abortions are accessible and there is no evidence that they are being performed in a dangerous or unsafe manner in NSW — the result of several legal cases — the 1900 NSW Crimes Act should not be changed because it could “provide ammunition to those who oppose abortion”. He also opposed the bill, he said, because it did not include new regulations governing abortion.

Mark Pearson, from the Animal Justice Party, spoke in support of decriminalisation, saying it is a women’s right to decide about her body. He said that he had learned as a young gay man that there needed to be a separation between church and state. Passing the bill, he said, would take the procedure out of the moral realm where it did not below.

John Graham and Penny Sharpe from the Labor Party spoke strongly in favour of decriminalisation. Graham said that the state should not be able to interfere with such individual decisions, that there was a significant gap between the current law and lived experience, that as several justices had interpreted the law in several different ways there was significant confusion and therefore a need for legal clarity and that the existing law contained a class bias.

Sharpe said that women should not have to live under an archaic law emanating from Britain's 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. She also said the current law treated people unequally: those with the means are not as affected as those without. She also reminded the chamber that unplanned pregnancy was “a fact of life”, that “no contraception was 100% safe”, mistakes happen and sexual assault can result in pregnancy.

Most states and both territories have now decriminalised abortion and there is overwhelming medical and legal support for decriminalisation.

The Greens’ David Shoebridge took issue with the argument that there would be an “unregulated” environment if abortion was to be removed from the Crimes Act.

He said this was a furphy as the decision about whether or not to have an abortion was taken mostly after a women consulted with her doctor. There is a medical regime, he said, and there was no principled reason to set up another set of regulations to cover this one specific medical procedure.

Faruqi’s bill would have also provided for “safe access zones” to prevent zealots from harassing women directly outside the doors of clinics.

At the end of the debate, Faruqi demolished the accusation that the "process" of getting the draft bill together had been flawed saying she had consulted widely with doctors and lawyers, given notice about the bill in 2015, presented it in August 2016 and now debating it in 2017.

She said some of the misinformation coming from the Catholic Church, the Australian Christian Lobby and other anti-abortion groups was insulting. Abortion was not going to “unregulated” because medical practitioners’ work is regulated and abortion should not be singled out as the one medical procedure that needs special legislation. She said the NSW Health and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists supported her bill.

Faruqi also cited polls consistently showing majorities support decriminalisation and pointed to the open letters to all NSW MPs by 300 doctors and other health professionals including the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association and by lawyers urging them to support the bill.

She said her bill was “far from radical”, that the parliamentary system was supposed to be secular and that “neither my religion nor yours” should stand in the way of making a good law.

“Today is a historic day”, Faruqi concluded. “We have created overwhelming momentum for change in NSW.”

"Religion, whether it is mine or anyone else’s, should not deny someone their rights and choices.”

“Young people overwhelmingly supported this reform because they can see the hypocrisy. No amount of scare campaigns can hold back the tide. This was about putting abortion access on the political agenda. We succeeded in that and we will continue the campaign.”

As the debate went on inside parliament, outside Macquarie Street had become a scene from medieval times with a handful of noisy Christian Democratic Party supporters praying and screaming their opposition to the bill.

But there is no going back.

“The provisions in my bill are operating in various parts of Australia effectively. MPs who voted against this bill need to explain why they think women in NSW deserve fewer rights and fewer protections than women in Victoria, Tasmania or the ACT", Faruqi said. "I am confident that under a less conservative parliament, less dominated by conservative men, abortion will be taken out of the Crimes Act and women will be able to access reproductive health clinics without harassment in future.”

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