Queensland’s decision to decriminalise abortion is a landmark win for women’s rights in Australia. The Termination of Pregnancy Act 2018 allows terminations on request up to 22 weeks’ gestation, and establishes safe access zones to restrict protestors from coming within 150 metres of termination clinics. The bill was passed on 17 October 2018 and the law came into effect on 3 December.
The decriminalisation of terminations in Australia and around the world is an important step for women’s rights. We will never achieve gender equality if women and girls do not have the right to exercise autonomy over their bodies, and sexual and reproductive health.
Termination or referral
The passing of this Bill in Queensland is an incredible achievement. It required the precise mixing of ingredients that you would expect of a fancy cocktail: public awareness and support, correct timing and, most importantly, political will. Most importantly, we need to thank the women’s movement for lifting the ministerial veto on RU486, the medical termination pill.
Building political will and consensus around termination issues is a tricky business. These types of issues are generally determined by conscience votes. Unlike other issues where politicians will usually vote along party lines, a conscience vote allows a politician to cast a vote on an individual basis in line with their own values. For a successful outcome, this means that each politician must be individually persuaded to ensure that they will cast a favourable vote. The successful passing of this bill through Parliament demonstrates that champions of women’s issues can be found everywhere, and across party lines.
If parties did not allow their Members of Parliament to cast a conscience vote, and rather enforced voting along party lines, then it is possible that the Bill would have not passed. The reason for this is the same reason that Queensland has maintained archaic termination laws for so long: stigma and fear-mongering. It is the state that has voted both Peter Dutton and Pauline Hanson into Parliament, after all.
The idea that terminations are a moral issue, rather than a woman’s choice about her life and body, is nonsensical. What is truly difficult to comprehend is that for so long – and this remains the case in New South Wales – we have told women they are criminals for wanting to access a basic medical procedure.
Similar to politicians casting conscience votes, medical practitioners can decide whether or not they want to perform this medical procedure based on their conscience, unless it is an emergency. Without legislation to decriminalise abortion, medical practitioners are not required to provide all options to pregnant women seeking medical assistance. They are not required to tell a woman she has the option of a termination, or provide a referral to another doctor in circumstances where they object to it.
With this Act, women in Queensland can now receive information, support and referral services to access a termination, even if they present to a medical practitioner that does not provide termination services.
If a medical practitioner does choose to conscientiously object, then they are required to transfer her care to another registered health practitioner or service provider who they believe does not have a conscientious objection to providing the service.
However, there is no penalty if the practitioner fails to do this. This means, inevitably, that practitioners can get away with not providing a termination and not providing any helpful information on where a woman can access one.
Acts are a good first step, access is the next one
The public health system has failed to uphold women’s sexual and reproductive rights for a long time. Despite this necessary and important legal reform in Queensland, its public health system will continue to fail women so long as faith-based organisations continue to play a central role in public health services.
For example, in Australia many Catholic organisations are contracted by governments to provide public health services. This means that a woman who visits a publicly funded hospital may be visiting a hospital guided by faith-based ethics. With this bill, Catholic-run hospitals are no longer able to object to providing terminations to women and girls on the basis of religious values. However, in practice, this may not be the case. For example, at the Mercy Hospital in Victoria, the brochure on its women’s hospital does not provide terminations.
While decriminalising terminations is a huge step in bringing women closer to being able to control their bodies and their lives, it does not bring women closer to having these services widely available and at a low cost. In fact, allowing our medical practitioners and institutions to object to the procedure on the grounds of morality only perpetuates the stigma that there is something wrong with a woman accessing a termination. Would we allow our firefighters to not put out a fire based on a moral objection?
Decriminalisation of termination in Queensland is a landmark win for the state, Australia, and women across the country. However, there is more work to be done when it comes to ensuring that women are given the option and availability of the service when faced with the decision to continue with a pregnancy or not. Continuing to allow institutions and medical practitioners to deny women this right based on morality undermines political and legislative progress and denies women’s sexual and reproductive rights.