You may have heard about the current debate heating up across Australia; the movement to decriminalise abortion in NSW. The subject, as always, brings lots of opinions and confusion. What women do with their bodies has always been subject to controversy and emotion. The most recent global headlines that shocked the world focused on abortion laws implemented in May in Alabama, USA in which abortion was passed as a crime, meaning no exception, even for rape and incest. There is currently a multitude of human right’s campaigns to overturn the ban, including celebrity backing from Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande. This can be compared on the flip side to Ireland legalising abortion in last year’s landslide historic referendum.
Australia may not have as strict legislations as Alabama and other parts of the world, but the issue remains the same– the state restricting what people with a uterus can do with it.
What is the current abortion law in Australia?
Like most Australian laws, the laws around abortion are complicated. Abortion laws are decided by states, not the federal government, which means that each state has different laws governing abortions.
In New South Wales (and in Queensland up until December last year), abortion is a crime, except in exceptional circumstances such as health risks. The punishment for an abortion in these states can range from seven to up to 14 years in jail. According to Family Planning NSW, abortions are medical or surgical procedures, with most performed within 12 weeks of pregnancy. Abortions up to 20 weeks are rare, but can also occur under extreme circumstances.
What is the decriminalisation reform in New South Wales?
Several weeks ago, a bill to decriminalise abortion in NSW dubbed The Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill passed through the state’s lower house (59 votes to 31). The original bill moved to decriminalise abortion up to 22 weeks upon request. The final vote in the upper house, with amendments, has since been delayed until next month, with pushback from anti-abortion and pro-life groups and some religious leaders. There have since been protests from both sides in Sydney CBD, dividing both the government and the public.
Why is it important to legalise abortion?
Legalising abortion has a multitude of benefits to anyone with a uterus, even if they aren’t pregnant. Firstly, imposing restrictions on what women can do with their bodies is a human rights issue. Women should be able to choose if and when they want children, without the threat of criminalisation.
“They (anti-abortion laws) prevent women from enjoying human rights that relate fundamentally to the most intimate, private and deep aspects of their personality: their sexual freedom, family planning, when, how and with whom to have children.” – Amnesty International, The legalization of abortion will benefit thousands of women, 2018
Decriminalising abortion is also an important health issue. Legal abortion allows for better access to reproductive services for thousands of women. It removes stigma and discrimination, and allows for practitioners to provide a full range of reproductive health care services, in particular for those living rurally.
Making abortion illegal also doesn’t stop abortions. A study in the US found that the number of abortion-related deaths decreased by 74% over eight years when abortion was legalised. This is most likely due to self-induced abortions or dodgy back alley procedures. Pregnancy and childbirth also carry more long term physical and mental risks than abortion.
What’s the arguments against decriminalising abortion?
Firstly, some believe that decriminalising abortion encourages abortions. In all other states in Australia, there has been no increase in abortions.
Many religious groups believe that abortion is an attack on the “right to life”. The argument that an unborn foetus has a right to life at conception is complex and never-ending; it’s a matter of opinion and an individual’s sense of morality. The relevant rebuttal to this is that we must respect the rights of women and that life isn’t black and white.
“When abortion is practised indiscriminately it damages respect for human life. However, we live in a broken world where people face difficult decisions.” –– Reverand Simon Hansford from The Uniting Church on why abortion should be legalised, ABC, Aug 2019
There is also the National Party leader Barnaby Joyce’s comment that legalising abortion allows the killing of babies right up to the moment of birth. Firstly, a married politician whose affair resulted in a pregnancy with his mistress should think carefully before discussing morals. Secondly, Joyce is spreading misinformation. In Australia, only 1-3% of abortions occur after 22 weeks and this is generally due to severe foetal abnormalities.
People having abortions on the basis of sex-selection, ie the want for a certain sex, is another issue raised by the opposition. This is a cultural issue and has been known to take place in countries such as China (due to its one-child policy). There is currently no evidence that this takes place in NSW. This is also an issue that should be addressed culturally, not legally via health care reform.
Update: This post was edited to reflect the fact that Queensland decriminalised abortion last year. The original post had listed Queensland as a state in which abortion was still a crime.
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Feature image by Kate Ausburn.