Opinion | Politicians should turn their attention to decriminalising abortion

MORE ACTION NEEDED: People in favour of safe buffer-zones around NSW abortion clinics protesting outside state parliament earlier this year.

MORE ACTION NEEDED: People in favour of safe buffer-zones around NSW abortion clinics protesting outside state parliament earlier this year.

Safe access to abortion clinics is a good start, but we need to keep moving towards the decriminalisation of abortion. The NSW Parliament has passed the Access to Reproductive Health Clinics Bill - otherwise known as the Safe Access Zones Bill. It means protesters who intimidate, harass or film people within 150 metres of clinics or hospitals that provide terminations will face punishment, including jail time.

This is welcome news. Of course women should be able to have safe access to reproductive health clinics to undergo a termination of pregnancy without being harassed or abused, as should their partners and friends and the people who work in those clinics. I have seen first-hand the appalling abuse that is hurled at women who are already going through a difficult time. Such disrespectful treatment of women happens daily around the state, including in the Hunter.

The new law should really be seen as a “no-brainer” despite a minority of MPs, including the Minister for Women, opposing the bill on the grounds of limits on free speech. Women in NSW should, however, be entitled to a more comprehensive suite of protections. We need to be drafting laws to decriminalise abortion. Many people are unaware that abortion offences are still part of our criminal code in NSW and that women and doctors can be charged under the Crimes Act for having an unlawful abortion.

What I hope doesn't occur now is that the passing of this law delays action to decriminalise abortion. My fear is that those who oppose abortion will be able to say that action has already been ‘taken’ on abortion. The fact that women and doctors can still be charged with criminal offences for having an abortion in this state has no doubt strengthened the position and sentiment of the protesters outside the reproductive clinics over the years.

NSW and Queensland are the only Australian states to retain abortion offences in their criminal code. The wording of the offences is based on very old fashioned concepts lifted from UK legislation passed in 1867 (the Offences Against the Person Act). These legislative provisions are outdated and out of step with public sentiment. Surveys show time and time again that an overwhelming majority of Australians support liberal access to abortion. Between 75% and 85% of Australians believe abortion should be a decision for a woman and her doctor and not involve the criminal law.

Abortions are the most commonly performed therapeutic procedure in the country yet the only procedure that is the subject of criminal sanctions. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, approximately 80,000 abortions take place in Australia each year - 27,000 women in NSW.  A quarter to a third of Australian women will choose to terminate a pregnancy at some point in their lives. Half of all pregnancies in Australia are unplanned and one in four pregnancies are terminated.

Abortion should be regulated like any other medical procedure, not like a crime. The Queensland Government is taking action and has referred the issue of abortion offences to the Queensland Law Reform Commission. Last month the people of Ireland overwhelmingly supported a referendum to lift a ban on abortion. With the Irish Government proposing legislation before the end of the year, NSW will likely be left with some of the most draconian abortion laws in the world.

As should have always have been the case, women now have safe access to lawful reproductive health clinics in NSW.  Our politicians need to rise above party politics, listen to their constituents and turn their attention to decriminalising abortion.

Catherine Henry is a Hunter-based specialist health lawyer and commentator on the legal aspects of abortion.