It’s 2018 And Australian Politicians Are Making Sure Abortion Is Still A Crime

How are we still in this mess?

Mehreen Faruqi

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To mark International Women’s Day, Junkee is hearing from three different writers about gender, identity and what we need to fight for in 2018. Here, Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi makes the case for changing NSW and Queensland’s archaic abortion laws.

In 2018 it is an unpalatable reality that in two of the most populous states in Australia — NSW and Queensland — abortion is still a crime.

This isn’t just an antiquated quirk of the law — the most recent legal cases happened less than a year ago. In August last year, a woman was convicted for her attempt to procure an abortion under the NSW Crimes Act 1900. In April, because abortion is an offence in Queensland’s Criminal Code 1899, a 12-year old girl had to get permission from the Supreme Court in Queensland to obtain an abortion.

Every other state and territory in Australia has reformed their abortion laws to some extent, making it easier for women to access pregnancy termination services without the threat of prosecution and persecution. But obstinate and out of touch governments, whether Liberal or Labor, refuse to act in NSW and Queensland.

Why Hasn’t The Law Changed?

For decades, campaigners for abortion rights have been told to stay quiet and not push for change, just in case some of the ambiguous legal loopholes that allow us to have limited access to abortion are further restricted.

During our End12 campaign to fully decriminalise abortion we were told it’s not the right time, or that there are bigger priorities, and to get to the back of the queue because things might get worse. This is, and always has been, complete bullshit. This narrative is simply an excuse for politicians who actually view abortion as a crime, or for those who believe in the right to choose but are silenced by their party. And none of them want to be outed.

However, they were forced to confront their demons in both NSW and Queensland last year. And while we didn’t quite get there this time, decriminalisation is squarely on the political and public agendas after decades of media and political silence. And the sky didn’t fall in.

In Queensland, after the state failed to debate two separate abortion law reform bills brought to parliament by Independent MP Rob Pyne, the matter has been referred to the Law Reform Commission. They are due to report in June this year, and hopefully they will give some sensible recommendations to decriminalise abortion and create safe access.

In NSW, my attempt to decriminalise abortion for women and all people who require this reproductive health service was thwarted. Despite being given a conscience vote in the Legislative Council, every single member of the Government voted against the first ever bill brought to NSW Parliament to remove abortion from the Crimes Act and enact safe access zones to stop the harassment of patients outside abortion clinics. While all Coalition MPs voted ‘no’, only one bothered to speak on the bill. They were joined by three Labor members, the Christian Democrats, and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party MPs.

“Every single member of the Government voted against the first ever bill brought to NSW Parliament to remove abortion from the Crimes Act”

The shock and disbelief at this outcome from the public gallery was palpable to those in the chamber that day. This sense of shock soon turned into rage as people started contacting me to express their anger at being denied a basic human right, one that many others across the country already have. During the campaign, so many were astonished that we were still fighting for it.

Communities across NSW and Australia strongly and overwhelmingly endorse the right to pregnancy termination and to be able to access this in safety and privacy. Yet our political representatives cast aside our wishes and deny us reproductive autonomy.

The ‘crime’ of abortion has led to shame and stigma. Access is limited to mainly big cities, and it is privatised and expensive, making it much harder for people in rural and regional area and in migrant and Indigenous communities. A pro-choice counsellor in Queensland once put it very well when she said, “If you found it easy to access an abortion you are lucky, probably white, well-off and live in a city”.

This is Australia in the 21st century. How are we still in this mess?

The Right To Bodily Autonomy

We must recognise that at the heart of the failure to decriminalise abortion lies the profoundly patriarchal view that women and their bodies must be controlled.

Deeply held misogynistic beliefs mean women cannot be trusted to make their own decisions. We should not be fooled into thinking that these views belong in the past. Such ideas are alive and well in federal and state parliaments, in major political parties, in the Christian Democrats, and in the shape of individuals like Cory Bernardi, who only recently put up a motion against the anti-domestic violence campaign group White Ribbon for their support of decriminalising abortion.

So why do politicians persist in restricting abortion rights, when doctors, lawyers, nurses, civil libertarians, anti-domestic violence campaigners and the public see it so clearly? I believe it is because they don’t face the consequences of their actions, and they have never had to face them.

It is time to defeat these forces and enshrine the right to bodily autonomy in the laws of both NSW and Queensland. It gives me great hope that young people see through the farcical nature of this debate. Time after time, I have met them on the campaign trail and they do not buy any excuses for why we should just keep waiting to achieve full legal bodily autonomy.

As we proceed, we must continue to focus on a few things which became very clear. One — politicians are used to playing it safe, so they must be forced to come to the table and be held accountable. Two — compromise can only get us so far (which is not very far at all). We must be resolute in demanding change, and never let anyone tell us ‘it’s too hard’ or ‘now is not the right time’.

And three — we are close to the tipping point in this debate. But, community pressure must persist.

We have every right to full bodily autonomy without a shadow of criminality hanging over our heads. Abortion is an issue of medical health, but more importantly it’s a matter of reproductive rights. Rights we must demand without fear and with outrage.

Let’s push hard to decriminalise abortion and also make sure that access isn’t a geographical, class or racial lottery. All public hospitals should offer termination services through bulk billing so that no one is left out of pocket.

In the next 12 months we will all head to the ballot box. We must make abortion an election priority. Every single candidate and sitting MP should know that we are not going anywhere. They must make the commitment to change the law to provide unambiguous abortion rights, or know they will be kicked out.

Dr. Mehreen Faruqi is a Greens MP in the Upper House of NSW Parliament, who brought on the first ever bill to decriminalise abortion and enact safe access zones in the history of NSW Parliament.