Between a third and a quarter of women around the world will have an abortion during their lifetime. Despite the clear need for abortion to be an essential health service, it is shocking that it remains in the criminal code in both Queensland and New South Wales. Until very recently it was also illegal in the Northern Territory.
Last year, a 12-year-old girl was forced to get permission from the Queensland Supreme Court to receive an abortion that was obviously necessary. This meant that the young girl was forced to remain pregnant while the case proceeded, causing her further trauma. This incident was the trigger for the Independent MP Rob Pyne to introduce two bills to decriminalise abortion and to establish a regulatory framework in Queensland.
The formal policy of the Labor Party in Queensland is to remove abortion from the criminal code. Yet, they have done nothing to act on this despite being in power for the majority of years since 1989. Instead of binding its MPs to party policy, Labor stated that they would allow a ‘conscience vote’ on Pyne’s bill which meant that in the hung parliament the votes of LNP members would be required to pass the bill.
The LNP stated that they would vote against it and in response Pyne withdrew the bill under the agreement that the matter would be referred to the Queensland Law Reform Commission (QLRC). Labor’s pledge to act on the advice of the QLRC seems like yet another attempt to stall this important reform.
While it is common for MPs to lag behind public opinion on social issues, as we have seen with the debate surrounding same sex marriage, it is especially remarkable in this situation where recent polls have found that 80% of people in Queensland support abortion rights!
Abortion was placed in the criminal code in Queensland in 1899, and while some amendments have been made, it has remained there despite a review of the code in 1991. Sadly, in NSW, abortion is also listed in the criminal code making it technically illegal in both states to have an abortion.
In both NSW and Queensland, doctors are allowed to perform abortions if a pregnancy will risk a woman’s mental or physical health. However, the grey area around the interpretation of what “risk” exactly means, has resulted in many doctors being unwilling to provide the service for fear of prosecution.
In 2012, a couple from Cairns were prosecuted for using abortion pills. The charges were eventually dropped, however as was the case with the 12-year-old girl, the torture inflicted on the women by the state was significant.
Even if you manage to meet the strict criteria for an abortion in Queensland it is highly likely that it would still be inaccessible. According to Children by Choice, outside of the south-east corner of the state there are only two clinics that provide surgical abortions. In general, abortion services are limited, privatised and expensive, and some are at risk of closure due to a lack of funding.
Women in Queensland are forced to travel if there are no clinics willing to provide the service. In some cases, women are forced to travel as far as Victoria where the laws are less restrictive. While this is not so much a problem for women with money, it is a major problem for working class and unemployed women who lack savings. In this sense abortion rights are clearly a class issue.
The denial of abortion rights is also misogynistic. It is a relic from a time when a woman’s place was seen as in the home and her role was that of a child bearer. It’s clear that some MPs in the major parties would like to return to these times. The fact that women’s lives are being held to ransom by MPs who refuse to stand opposed to their conservative backers is a reflection of the widespread sexism and inequality that the capitalist system thrives upon.
We have seen around the world that a number of governments have attempted to wind back abortion rights. We need to defend the rights we have here in Australia while fighting to extend them, especially in states like Queensland and NSW. Socialists believe that it should be a woman’s right to choose if, how, and when she will have children. Therefore, we demand:
*That abortion should be provided through the public health service, without cost and shame, for all who need it.
*Fully free and available contraception and sexual health services including access to IVF from the public health service.
*A programme of progressive sex education in schools.
*A democratic socialist society that removes the oppression and discrimination that women face.
By Kat Galea