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Access to Abortion

Monday, 3 March, 2014

Words by Zoe Moorman
Illustration by Tor Evans

In Cory Bernardi’s The Conservative Revolution, the Liberal Senator condemns abortion as an “abhorrent form of birth control”. Since Bernardi clearly has a lot of experience in making decisions about his own womb, the media circus has paid a lot of attention to his remarks about the state of the so-called “death industry”, which has allegedly experienced new levels of popularity since its legalisation “many decades ago”. His claims are, of course, backed up by the government’s entirely existent and not at all estimated statistics on abortion, as well as thorough research on the history of abortion law in this country. Ha. No.

So is this “death industry” legal in Australia? Well, it’s not black and white. The state government has sole control over the criminal codes, with abortion’s place in these codes passed down from the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 of the English Parliament. Under these laws, which were first drafted over 150 years ago, abortion is still illegal in both New South Wales and Queensland, where both a woman procuring an abortion and any person who aids her (be they partner, doctor, or pharmacist) can be charged with a criminal offence.

In spite of these laws, there are still reproductive health services available to women in Queensland and New South Wales. The Children By Choice website, which is sponsored by the Queensland Government, lists five abortion providers in the Brisbane area alone, with details on which clinics allow you to claim Medicare rebates for the procedure. Given we know that abortion is illegal there, how can this be? The truth is, nobody has any idea. Doctors are operating on the status quo, lawyers are baffled by the opacity of the code’s legal jargon (using the phrase “unlawful circumstances” in criminal law codes was probably a bad idea), and women are unaware that these procedures are illegal in the first place. This sad state of affairs was brought to public attention in 2009 when 19-year-old Tegan Leach and her boyfriend were arrested in Queensland for procuring and using the abortive drug RU486—a prescription drug available for the specific purpose of aborting early-term fetuses.

Looking to other states, abortion is partially legal in South Australia (restricted after 28 weeks of pregnancy, passed 1969), Northern Territory (restricted after 14 weeks, passed 1974) and Western Australia (restricted after 20 weeks, passed 1998). There are only three states or territories that have fully removed abortion from the criminal code: the ACT (passed 2002), Victoria (passed 2008), and Tasmania (passed last November). Is this the “decades long” history of legal abortions Bernardi is concerned about?

The problems with Bernadi’s arguments doesn’t even touch on the moral and legal qualms many have with abortion remaining prohibited or restricted. Legalised abortion protects the right of women to bodily integrity, a legal principle by which all persons have the inviolable right to determine what to do with their bodies. Legalised abortions protect doctors from the possibility of prosecution, and care for their primary patient, the mother. Sometimes an abortion (either pre-emptive or in assisting a miscarriage) must be performed in order to save the mother’s life. Legalised abortion also reduces the number of unhappy children stuck in foster care or kept with families who don’t want them. “Pro-life” campaigning only considers the child’s opportunities in the womb, but not the child’s opportunities after birth.

Furthermore, “pro-lifers” like Bernardi ignore the basic fact that criminalising or restricting abortion does not and has not eliminated its existence. Instead, criminalisation pushes women’s healthcare onto the black market, where countless women trust their bodies to untrained “medics” or recklessly take their lives into their own hands. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has evidence to support the pointlessness of criminalisation: both the highest and lowest rates of abortion are in areas that have legalised it (Eastern Europe and Western Europe respectively). Conversely to Bernardi’s uninformed opinion, the WHO has found that increased access to contraceptive healthcare, not decreased access to abortion, has had the most significant effect on reducing abortion rates globally. These measures have worked because they attack the cause of abortion—unplanned pregnancy—and not women’s healthcare and right to bodily autonomy.

Bernardi’s stereotype that women use abortion as “birth control” is both uninformed and destructive. Him and his pro-life cohorts continuing to malign women for making an incredibly difficult choice creates a stigma around an already traumatising procedure that an estimated one in three Australian women—mothers, daughters, friends, wives, students, co-workers—will personally undergo in their reproductive lifetime. I will not mince words: Bernardi has attempted to violate the right of women to be treated as human beings capable of making their own decisions. Even worse, he has done so with faulty statistics, without reading up on current Australian law, and without consulting accepted research about how to reduce abortion rates. Perhaps Senator Bernardi should spend his time advocating for better sex education or greater subsidisation of contraceptives if he is truly interested in reducing abortion rates.