The Queensland government has tried their best for a quite a few years to ignore the calls to change the state’s laws on abortion. However, whatever your views are on abortion, the issue in Queensland can no longer be avoided by the Queensland Parliament.

The situation for individual women seeking an abortion and for doctors prepared to provide it is now totally untenable.

It has now been reported that

Public hospitals in Rockhampton and Mackay are believed to have joined the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital in suspending medical abortions, while a service attached to Cairns Base Hospital is also reviewing its legal position.

…. more hospitals are set to follow and suspend drug-induced abortion services.

Queensland women are now having to travel to Sydney for a medical abortion.

Because this issue will always be treated as a conscience vote, it means traditional party controls and discipline do not apply.

If a majority in the Queensland Parliament do believe that abortion should be illegal, then let them have a vote to confirm that. There would obviously be many people unhappy about this outcome, but at least it would provide certainty and clarity about what the law is.

At present, the legal uncertainty means Queensland has the worst of both worlds on the issue.

Even though the Premier and her Ministers in Cabinet may not be wanting to have a full debate, the Parliament as a whole should have the final say on bringing on any proposed changes to the law for debate. Each individual MP would also be free to move amendments to any Bill that is brought forward.

Cairns-based gynaecologist Caroline de Costa has been writing regularly in Crikey over many months now assiduously documenting the untenable situation which has developed in Queensland following the decision to charge a young woman from Cairns with procuring, and her partner with assisting to procure, her own abortion.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has kept trying to avoid the issue throughout this time, stating that while her personal view is that abortion should be a matter between a woman and her doctor, there shouldn’t be any attempt to change the existing law, supposedly because there wouldn’t be the numbers in the Queensland Parliament for it to succeed.

Personally, I am not so convinced about that, but even so, I don’t see that as sufficient reason not to bring on a debate, which would at least clarify the issue.

This has always been an issue that is treated as a conscience vote by all parties in the Parliament, where traditional party line votes don’t occur. Efforts have been made by some in the Labor Party to introduce a Private Members Bill (i.e. legislation that is not formally produced or backed by the government). This was done successfully in the federal Parliament in regards to RU486, where a Bill sponsored by a Senator from each of the Liberal, Labor, Democrat and National parties.

However, while legislation on a matter which is seen as a conscience vote can be introduced by any MP, the decision about whether or not to allow that legislation to be debated and voted on is still a government decision – unless enough individual members of the governing party willing to defy such a decision, which does not occur when Labor is the governing party.

Even though most surveys suggest a clear majority of Australians support safe abortion being made available to a woman who seeks it, politicians of all parties usually tend to shy away from bringing on debates on the issue. This may be more due to the fact it can be quite divisive within a party, than the fact it can be lead to strident debate within society.

The big benefit of a conscience vote is that it makes each individual member of Parliament individually accountable for what they do. They can’t hide behind the party room or caucus.

There is no doubt this is an issue where have people have very strong and genuinely held beliefs on both sides of the debate. That situation might require a special effort be made to have as respectful a debate as possible, but it is no reason to dodge the debate all together.

ELSEWHERE: ABC reports Anna Bligh’s view that bringing in legislation aimed at clearly decriminalising abortion might end up with the Parliament amending it to create an even more restriction situation than currently exists.  The government instead is planning to amend the Criminal Code “to give medical abortions the same protection as surgical terminations.” Professor de Costa doesn’t sound convinced that this is sufficient.

I assume amending the Criminal Code in the way the Premier has described would also require amending legislation to be brought into the Parliament and voted on, which I would have thought would also open up the prospects of other amendments being moved. However, it’s possible there are some procedural rules in the state Parliament that I’m not aware of which preclude this prospect.

I also can’t see why amending the Criminal Code in the way the Premier is planning wouldn’t also be a conscience vote, given that it clearly relates to abortion, but perhaps there are vagaries of internal Labor rules I’m not aware of.

In any case, given that hospitals are now suspending the performance of abortions, it does suggest that the current “protections” for surgical termination are less than watertight.

* Amanda Greer writes about the issue at New Matilda.

* (26/5) Some more in The Australian, with Logan Hospital confirmed as the fourth hospital to cancel their abortion procedures.  I’m a bit surprised there seems to be more on this issue in The Australian – a nationwide daily – than there is The Courier-Mail, the main Brisbane & Queensland based paper.

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