The return of Liberal/National party governments at both state and federal level in recent elections has undoubtedly set back the cause of abortion reform – an issue that the vast majority of the voting public have consistently supported. In NSW, the campaign to decriminalise abortion had been gathering momentum in the months leading up to the March state election with Member for Sydney, Alex Greenwich, indicating he proposed to present a private members bill in the new parliament. Indications are that the bill would have had the support of both Labor and Green MPs.
If elected to government, Labor had planned to refer the issue to the NSW Law Reform Commission – a strategy that has worked in other states and most recently Queensland. Queensland has since enacted its Termination of Pregnancy Act 2018. NSW is the only Australian state or territory that has never updated its legislation. Re-elected NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, while herself pro-choice, has said her government has no plans to amend the Crimes Act.
Since the March election, a coalition of 60 peak legal, health and community organisations has been established. Led by the Womens Electoral Lobby, the NSW Pro-Choice Alliance has announced a renewed commitment to have abortion removed from the NSW Crimes Act and regulated like any other health procedure.
However, it’s not only criminality that’s at issue here. Even where decriminalisation has occurred around the country, access remains an issue. Almost all abortions are conducted in privately run abortion clinics. Taking into account the Medicare rebate, the average cost of an abortion is still around $500.
In the Federal election campaign, Shadow Minister for Women, Tanya Plibersek, said a Shorten Labor government would require public hospitals to offer abortion services as part of their Commonwealth funding arrangement. While Labor had attempted to make abortion an election issue, Prime Minister Morrison said he didn’t think the abortion debate was “good for our country.”
The regime in NSW is way out of step with public sentiment. Abortion is the most commonly performed therapeutic procedure in the country with one third of the 80,000 abortions performed each year taking place in NSW. Longtitudinal surveys have consistently shown that between 75 to 87 per cent of Australians believe that abortion should be freely available. It’s time our elected representatives listened to their constituents.
Catherine Henry is a Hunter-based health lawyer and commentator on the legal aspects of abortion.