A Beginner’s Guide to Abortion Law in Australia

By David Donaldson | 14 Sep 12
Photo of old law books

By David Donaldson. This piece is part of our September focus on Women’s Rights. See all of this month’s articles here.

Abortion law in Australia is up to the states; accordingly, state laws vary. Victoria and the ACT have the most liberal legislation on this issue, Queensland the strictest. Thankfully, the issue is not as polarising in Australia as the United States, where “pro-life” activists, having failed to outlaw the procedure, are trying to regulate clinics out of existence. But although the anti-abortion sentiments of our Opposition leader are well-known, Australians are generally supportive of women’s right to choose.

The 2009 prosecution in Queensland of Tegan Leach, 19 years old at the time, for using the abortifacient drug RU486 demonstrated that women in Australia continue to be short-changed by the law when it comes to what is essentially a personal decision. Although she was found not guilty and such trials are rare, restrictive laws and the accompanying worry and shame around the issue mean that in some states the law continues to interfere with a woman’s right to choose.

And in a long running and often bitter struggle by pro-lifers to swim against the tide, women also continue to be harassed outside fertility control clinics. The picket outside the clinic in East Melbourne, which has been running since the organisation opened in 1972, continues to be ignored by Melbourne City Council, even after a gunman killed one of the building’s security guards in 2001.

Victoria and the ACT’s abortion laws are among the best in the world, but progress needs to be made in other states, especially Queensland. Since 2008, women in Melbourne are permitted to receive a termination upon request up to 24 weeks, and must receive the agreement of two doctors past that time.

Those in Brisbane, however, legally must show that without the procedure, their own life, health or mental health would be under significant threat. Certainly, such categories can be interpreted widely, and often are. Keeping such laws on board however, even when rarely practiced, increases the uncertainty and anxiety for all those involved with the practice – partners, doctors, and of course the women themselves.

An perfect example of this is the fact that, following the charging of Tegan Leach for the use of RU486, several Queensland hospitals stopped offering terminations. Fearing legal repercussions for carrying out a routine procedure, some hospitals began referring women to doctors in New South Wales. The legal uncertainty surrounding Queensland’s out-of-date law, even when fitfully enforced, made life more difficult for women and health professionals.

It is also worth noting that sending women across the border mirrors the well-known practice of women from Ireland – where abortion is illegal unless the life of the woman is in danger – flying to the UK to receive abortions. And in 2011, there were even 102 Emirati women recorded as having travelled to the UK for the procedure. Restricting women’s right to choose does not stop abortions from taking place, but drives women to nearby jurisdictions. It also forces the practice into homes and hotels, presenting far greater – and completely unnecessary – health risks for the patient.

It is unfortunate that the question of who has the right to decide what happens with a woman’s body is something that still needs to be discussed. But while the threat of prosecution and social denigration hangs over women for exercising their right to decide, something still needs to be done.