Australian lawmakers vote no on legal abortion law
Last month, members of the New South Wales Parliament in Australia voted against a bill that would decriminalize abortion, which has been an offense under the state’s Crimes Act since 1900. The law reform bill—which had been brought forward by Member of Parliament Mehreen Faruqi of the Greens Party—was swiftly defeated in the upper house, 25 to 14. The reigning Liberal-National government (broadly defined as center-right conservatives) were given a conscience vote, meaning they could break with their party’s pro-life position if they chose. None did. According to The Guardian, members of the public, who watched the proceedings from the open gallery above, hollered “SHAME!” when results of the conscience vote were revealed.
In Australia, abortion is the subject of state law, not federal, meaning accessibility differs depending where you live. Under the New South Wales Crimes Act—drafted by men more than a century ago—the unlawful procurement of an abortion can be punished with up to 10 years in prison. Further, unlawfully supplying drugs or instruments to assist in abortions can result in a half-decade in jail.
This does not mean that women in New South Wales do not get abortions, or that doctors do not perform them, but it means the process is unnecessarily scary, complex, and stigmatized, and only occurs at all because of a tenuous legal loophole. District courts have ruled abortion could be undertaken “lawfully” if a doctor deemed it necessary to prevent a serious risk to a woman’s life or health. According to Julie Hamblin, a lawyer experienced in sexual and reproductive rights, the procedure remains “in legal purgatory—a serious crime that can nonetheless be committed legally on occasions, though no one is exactly sure when and how.”
While jail time isn’t actively enforced, New South Wales’ criminalizing of abortion still has disturbing effects for women who seek it out. Public hospitals often refuse to terminate pregnancies, as they can’t use public funds to perform the procedure. Abortions are mostly performed in private clinics, making them costly and often inaccessible (financially, geographically) to those living in rural or regional areas. If a doctor has a conscientious objection to abortion, they’re not required to disclose it to their patient before giving their formal recommendation. And crucially, there are no regulated safe zones around abortion clinics—something Faruqi’s bill had tried to redress, with a 150-meter no-cross area.
Over the course of a three-year campaign, Faruqi’s office has been inundated with stories about the lived implications of criminalization in New South Wales—one of only two states clinging to the dated legislation. “One woman was denied treatment after an incomplete medical abortion for four days because doctors didn’t want to run afoul of the law,” she told Teen Vogue. “Some others were simply turned away from public hospitals to treat their miscarriages, and were sent home to ‘wait it out’ or had to check themselves into expensive private clinics.”
The story of conservative men controlling women’s reproductive rights is depressingly well worn. Faruqi’s bill, while supported by The Nurses and Midwives’ Association, and by industry bodies representing gynecologists and obstetricians, was plagued by scare campaigns from anti-choice groups, and the Catholic Church. She remains steadfast, however. She’s not afraid.
“For the first time, the issue of abortion rights has been discussed within all party rooms and on the floor of Parliament House after more than one hundred years of silence,” she says. “More people than ever are disappointed and angry that this law exists, and [that] women and their doctors are effectively treated as criminals. We will not stop until abortion is decriminalized and women have the unambiguous legal right to make choices about their bodies.”