Decriminalise Abortion in NSW
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On the 11th of May 2017 Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi's bill to remove abortion related offences from the crimes act and common law and put in place safe zones around clinics was voted down by the Legislative Council of NSW. The bill would have aligned the law with that in Victoria, Northern Territory, Tasmania and ACT. The decision, that only directly affects women and their health, was made in a parliament of just 9 women out of 42 members.
In 2003, 81% of participants in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes believed a woman should be able to choose whether or not she has an abortion. The NSW Parliament has a responsibility to represent the people of NSW properly, and this did not happen on the 11th of May.
Abortion is the termination of a pregnancy, through either surgical abortion (seven to twelve weeks of pregnancy) or medical abortion (seven to nine weeks of pregnancy).
Abortion was criminalised in regard to unsafe conditions and procedures of the time, but medical advancements over the past 116 years means abortion can be a safe procedure with a 98% success rate.
Abortion is a criminal offence under the Crimes Act 1900, and punishable by up to 10 years of jail, but under the Levine ruling of 1971 and the Kirby ruling of 1994, abortion can be lawful if a doctor believes it is necessary to prevent serious danger to the woman’s mental and physical health. Ultimately, danger to the woman’s mental and physical health, and therefore whether an abortion is lawful, is subject to legal interpretation.
This creates a ‘grey area’, in which medical professionals, particularly public hospitals and healthcare providers, can be hesitant to perform abortions or deal with any complications arising from such, putting women’s health at risks in certain situations.
For example, in 2015 Anna Groth suffered from an infection and incomplete miscarriage after taking one of two pills in a medical abortion. After visiting the emergency room, she remained untreated for four days because doctors were concerned about conviction under the law.
Furthermore, the criminalisation of abortion creates limited and unequal access of a potentially life saving procedure. Most public hospitals will not perform an abortion due to the law, and private abortion clinics are uncommon; there are only 15 in New South Wales, and only one not located on the Eastern Coast. Abortion is one of the safest and most common medical procedures in Australia; one in three Australian women will have one in her lifetime, yet it is often unreasonably expensive due to privatisation. This creates inaccessibility for women in rural areas and poorer women.
Expert opinion favours the decriminalisation of abortion. A 2011 report by Anand Grover, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Health stated that criminal laws penalizing and restricting abortion:
- Restrict a woman’s control of her own body
- Increase illegal and unsafe abortions, and
- Are barriers to the realisation of women’s right to health
Dr Faruqi’s decriminalisation bill was endorsed by many organisations including RANZCOG, the Public Health Association of Australia, NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and White Ribbon. Over 300 doctors and 100 law and criminology academics also signed in support of the bill.
What About Adoption?
A popular argument against abortion is adoption. The problem with this is that adoption and abortion are completely different choices with different outcomes for all involved.
Prior to the Levine ruling in 1971, abortion was not legal on any medical, social or economic grounds. In a period which became known as the forced adoption practices of the 1950s - 1980s, young or unmarried mothers were forced or coerced into giving up their babies for adoption. This was done by hospitals, charities, church groups, government policy and societal values of the time. The number of adoptions peaked at 9798 in 1972.
The abhorrent combination of no legal abortions and forced or coerced adoptions was phased out through the Levine ruling of 1971 and evolving opinion on forced adoptions.
In 2014, the government apologised to everyone affected by the forced adoption practices, including the women who had lost control of their lives, bodies and children. Many of them had suffered grief lasting for decades.
As of 2015, there were 43 400 children living in out-of-home care in Australia, meaning they have no birth parent able to care for them. In that year, there were only 292 adoptions, including international adoptions.
Clearly adoption will not solve the problem of children with birth parents unable or unwilling to care for them. Moreover, forcing adoption over abortion takes away a woman’s agency and bodily autonomy and can harm her health. The extremely negative effects of this is already well documented in Australian history.
Legal access to abortion is a necessity for women's health and rights. Support the cause, support women.
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