Queensland’s current abortion law was introduced in 1899, in an era that preceded antibiotics, when surgery and anaesthesia were risky, when safe, effective drugs for abortion had yet to be invented and when pregnancy tests involving two blue lines in the privacy of one’s own bathroom were unknown.
In 1899 women did not have the vote, there were no women in parliament, few women went to university and there was no effective contraception. Now well into the 21st century women expect control over reproduction and the right to make their own decisions about pregnancy and childbirth.
Cut to three weeks ago, when a bill to reform Queensland’s abortion laws was tabled in parliament. This bill reflects recommendations of the Queensland Law Reform Commission (QLRC) released on June 30 after a year of inquiry and deliberation. The bill was referred to the Health, Communities, Disability Services and Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Committee for detailed consideration, and members of the public have been invited to make submissions. The premier has indicated that she strongly supports passage of this legislation.
The bill will completely remove abortion from the Criminal Code and place it within health regulations, allow conscientious objection on the part of health professionals but require timely referral to a non-objecting practitioner, and mandate access zones around clinics similar to those now required in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.
Abortion will be available following consultation between a woman and her doctor to 22 weeks of pregnancy; after that time consultation with a second doctor will be required.
Years in the making
It has been a long road to this point. In 2016, then-independent MP Rob Pyne tabled two private member’s bills to reform abortion laws. He eventually withdrew them on the government’s promise of the QLRC review. Now we have the QLRC report and the new bill, the destination of law reform is in sight.
The Pyne legislation was withdrawn in part because, it was said, the Coalition MPs intended to vote as a block to oppose it. Yet among those MPs are some who have personally indicated that they are in favour of Queensland women, urban and rural, having safe and equitable access to abortion services.
This is an issue about the reproductive health of women. It needs bipartisan support, as happened in Victoria and Tasmania when those states decriminalised abortion in recent years, and in the passage of the bill to overturn the Harradine Amendment in Federal Parliament in 2006, allowing the introduction of abortion medication mifepristone into Australia.
Members representing women in rural and regional electorates in particular should consider the difficulties faced by women travelling long distances to access costly services that should be available close to home. For geographical and other reasons, Indigenous women are particularly disadvantaged in accessibility to services.
Fears have been expressed by opponents of the legislation that late abortions will increase in number following decriminalisation.
In fact, almost all abortions in Australia take place at less than 20 weeks of pregnancy; in Queensland abortions after 20 weeks make up about 1% of the total. They take place in just one hospital in Brisbane, where a dedicated and experienced team of doctors care for women who have had to make the difficult decision to terminate at this stage of their pregnancy for medical reasons.
This will not change following decriminalisation; abortion will continue to be regulated, as all medical and surgical procedures are, by Queensland Health and professional bodies.
Abortion and domestic violence
Then there is the matter of abortion’s role in domestic violence. We know that reproductive coercion is an important aspect of domestic violence. Reproductive coercion includes circumstances where women are coerced or forced by their partner to become pregnant against their wishes. Contraceptive sabotage and interference is a recognised form of reproductive coercion. It may include preventing a woman from obtaining contraceptive pills, disposing of her contraceptive methods and forcibly removing contraceptive devices.
Some women become pregnant due to reproductive coercion and in those cases criminalised abortion contributes to the difficulties women have leaving violent domestic situations.
Criminalisation also maintains the stigma around abortion that continues both in the medical profession and in our society as a whole. It means that some Queensland women will still seek to access abortion unsafely, on the internet. Around 25% of pregnancies are terminated in Queensland every year yet women remain reluctant to talk about it.
We have been involved for more than two decades in the campaign to bring the law into the 21st century. Such legal change is essential if Queensland doctors and other health professionals are to work without fear of prosecution when providing safe and effective abortion care to women requesting it.
Parliament needs to come together across party lines to carry forward this important reform.
Professor Heather Douglas is a professor of criminal law at the University of Queensland and professor Caroline de Costa is a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at James Cook University.