Australia: Women make gains in right to choose abortion

By Felicity Coggan
December 16, 2019

SYDNEY — In a gain for women’s rights, a new bill decriminalizing abortion passed the New South Wales state parliament Sept. 26. The vote followed a rally of 500 held here Sept. 14 in support of women’s right to choose to have an abortion, followed by an anti-abortion-rights protest of several thousand the next day.

The new Abortion Law Reform Act removes abortion from the Crimes Act and allows abortion on a woman’s request up to 22 weeks of pregnancy. After this it introduces the restriction that a woman must gain the approval of two specialist medical practitioners to obtain an abortion.

New South Wales is the last Australian state to remove abortion from the criminal code, which dates back to 1900. It had said that anyone who “unlawfully uses any instrument or other means” with the intention to force a miscarriage would face 10 years in prison.

Despite the archaic provisions of the law, legal abortion has in fact been widely available in New South Wales and elsewhere in Australia since the rise of the modern women’s rights movement in the 1970s. A series of common law court rulings established that abortions in certain instances could be legally carried out. A 1969 decision in the state of Victoria was followed by the landmark 1971 “Levine ruling” in New South Wales, which defined abortion as “lawful” if necessary to preserve the woman’s life, or her physical or mental health. Further court decisions upheld and broadened these provisions, which were legal at any stage of pregnancy.

Since then, new abortion reform laws have introduced term limits on abortion on request in most of Australia, with restrictions for later term abortions.

The change in the law was an advance for women, Margaret Kirkby, a long-time activist in Women’s Abortion Action Campaign, told the Militant, but “term limits are not what we want. It comes down to abortion should be a woman’s right to choose.”

“We welcome the decriminalization of abortion, something women have long been fighting for,” said Linda Harris, the Communist League candidate for Granville in the New South Wales state elections earlier this year.

“The Communist League stands for women’s right to unrestricted access to family planning services, including the right to safe, secure abortions and low-cost child care,” Harris said. “We oppose the state intervening in a woman’s right to control her own body. The League does not support the restrictions on access to abortion introduced under the new law.”

Opponents of decriminalizing abortion were successful in forcing a ban on “sex-selection abortion” in the law, which they falsely insisted would become widespread if it passed without this restriction.

Dr. Deborah Bateson, medical director of Family Planning New South Wales, said this would make doctors become “inquisitors,” probing the motivations of patients to avoid prosecution.

“I’ve worked in this area for many, many years,” she said. “I’ve never had anyone talk to me about wanting to have an abortion based on gender selection.”