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abortion law reform

Abortion Law Reform: Right to Choose

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Abortion Law Reform had long been a controversial issue in Queensland politics. In 2016 I met with a delegation of Cairns women campaigning to have abortion law reformed. They wanted abortion removed from the Queensland Criminal Code. At the time, Queensland was one of only two states in which abortion remained an offence.

The Cairns women I met with worked in the fields of medicine, sexual health and politics. These experienced professionals explained why the procedure remaining a criminal offence was neither desirable nor helpful.

Consequently, I agreed to support these women in a campaign to have medical terminations removed from the Queensland Criminal Code. However, there was a reason there had been no attempt to change the abortion law in Queensland for 100 years. With religious groups so opposed to change, any politician that pushed pro-choice laws would do so at their own peril.

What is abortion?

Abortion is a medical intervention to end pregnancy. It causes the contents of the uterus to expel.
woman taking abortion pill

12-Year-Old Victim of Archaic Abortion Law

Around this time I read about the case of a pregnant 12-year-old girl in Central Queensland who was unable to access a timely abortion. It made my blood boil.

The 12-year-old girl had been in state care. She did not want to proceed with her pregnancy. Her parents supported her in her decision to terminate. However, authorities forced her to wait weeks, because abortion was listed as an offence in the Criminal Code. Obviously, her pregnancy progressed during this time, before she had the termination. It was a shocking experience for a young girl to go through.

The thought of victims of incest and rape not being able to access an abortion was appalling. Whether it was because they had no money, lived in remote areas, or were in state care, these women should always have the ‘right to choose’ what to do with their bodies. However, the existing law was symptomatic of the conservative history of Queensland politics.

A Bill to remove abortion as a crime

I subsequently moved a Bill to have abortion completely removed from the Criminal Code. In moving the Abortion Law Reform (A Woman’s Right to Choose) Bill, I made the following comments:

This Bill removes sections 224, 225 and 226 from the Criminal Code. These provisions are archaic, outdated and have no place in a modern, liberal democracy. It states that any person who carries out, or assists with, an abortion may be liable to criminal prosecution. This includes the woman herself.

The current law in Queensland is causing great hardship and personal suffering. Children by Choice manager Amanda Bradley told the Brisbane Times: “We get reports of self-abortion – some women we speak to say if ‘I can’t get an abortion, I will do it myself.’” Children by Choice received 118 contacts relating to self-abortion or threats of self-abortion in the past year. This bill would not only help those women, it would also help Queensland doctors.

Dr. Caroline De Costa told the Cairns Post that Queensland doctors continued providing abortions despite risking prosecution under ambiguous laws.

Caroline de Costa
Caroline de Costa

The Cairns Case

I continued; This Bill will protect vulnerable Queensland women and the doctors that are risking prosecution to assist them. The ridiculous nature of the current situation was on public display in 2009-10. Police charged a Cairns couple. They were acquitted after a jury trial. However, they were subject to 18 months of glaring negative publicity.

A Cairns District Court jury took less than an hour to find Tegan Simone Leach, 21, and her partner Sergie Brennan not guilty of charges of procuring an abortion and supplying drugs to procure an abortion following a three-day trial.

Police charged the couple after finding an empty blister packets of the abortion drug RU486 and Misoprostol during a search of their home on an unrelated matter in February last year. They admitted in police interviews that Ms Leach took the pills. They were imported by Brennan’s family in the Ukraine, because they were not ready to have a child.

Nearly a third of women will seek an abortion over their lifetime. Therefore, it is time our laws reflected modern values that trust and empower women to make decisions about their own bodies. I commend the Bill to the House.

Caroline de Costa – At a Glance

Bio of Dr. Caroline de Costa: Champion of abortion law reform.
Abortion Law Reform Champion – Bio of Caroline de Costa

Abortion Law Reform – Queensland

There was a very strong community campaign supporting the push for abortion law reform. Cairns women were at its forefront of the campaign. However, women throughout the state were demanding change. The community based campaign that emerged was run by Pro-Choice Queensland under the banner, “It’s not 1899 Abortion should not be a crime.”

This was one of the busiest times of my life. I was keeping up with Parliamentary sittings and work in my electorate office, while attending rallies in support of the abortion law reform. I attended these rallies wherever I could.

A rally in Cairns involved walking from the Cairns Esplanade through town to the Court House. Several rallies were also held in Brisbane outside Parliament House. I was proud to attend and speak at these rallies to show solidarity with women campaigning for abortion law reform in Queensland. 

abortion law reform cairns
Abortion Law Reform – Cairns Rally

Abortion Law – The National Debate

I was also cognisant of the national political scene. At this time there were only two states in which abortion remained a crime, Queensland and New South Wales. If we could win abortion law reform in Queensland, New South Wales would surely follow suit rather than remain the only jurisdiction in which abortion was outlawed.

Consequently, we commenced working with a member of the New South Wales Parliament, Mehreen Faruqi. The Pro-choice movement was a real passion for Mehreen, and she took a leadership position on the issue. Mehreen even travelled to Cairns (at the invitation of Pro Choice Cairns) to attend a public forum at James Cook University.

Getting the Numbers

It was my preference to have abortion completely removed from the criminal code. Consequently, that would leave the procedure as a matter purely between a patient and their doctor. However, a majority of MPs did not support this position. Neither of the major parties would back the reform.

‘Cherish Life’, a religious extremist group, spread misinformation about my Bill and abortion in general. They engaged in a massive disinformation campaign on social media.

They spread ridiculous ideas, such as women with late term pregnancies deciding to terminate so that they could afford their Netflix subscription – just made-up bullshit, yet some people believed it.

There were even memes going around saying the change would lead to ‘9- month abortions‘. Of course, there is no such procedure for what would amount to a form of infanticide.  When I asked Doctor De Costa about it, she said, “I don’t know what they could possibly mean. The only procedure that happens at nine months is child birth.”

abortion law reform
Abortion Law Reform

A Second Bill

However, to get support of a majority of MPs, I needed to include extra legislative restrictions around the procedure. To this end, I drafted a further Bill to have abortion regulated in the Queensland Health Act. When moving the Bill I made the following comments:

Health (Abortion Law Reform) Amendment Bill 2016

I moved a private member’s Bill to remove all reference to abortion from the criminal code. It is my hope and belief that this will remove the obstacle to vulnerable women accessing the care they need. This will reduce unnecessary assessments in the care for women with foetal abnormalities. It allows psychiatrists to be involved in mental health care, not legal psych evaluations.

Private Clinics and Choice

I continued, Private clinics will still be restricted by the maximum gestational age they are credentialed to perform terminations, and the skills of the proceduralists. Public hospitals are still very unlikely to provide psychosocial termination over 20 weeks (perhaps in very exceptional circumstances of unremitting mental illness) and will certainly only perform terminations over 24 weeks for foetal abnormalities.

It is likely that the Qld Maternity and Neonatal Therapeutic Termination of Pregnancy Clinical Guidelines will still be the process adhered to for assessment and management, but with reference to the indication for termination meeting ethical rather than legal requirements.

Removing termination of pregnancy from the criminal code will place abortion where it should be: in the hands of women, their health care providers and support services. The responsibility for their wellbeing is, and should be, a medical and social care issue, not a legal one.

The 9 Month Lie

I added, Concerns the amendment will encourage terminations up to 9 months are unfounded and nonsensical. There is simply no medical practitioner who could or would offer this under current ethical and regulatory guidelines. 

The current law doesn’t prevent termination of pregnancy occurring in Queensland. But it certainly contributes to both preventing some women with significant needs from being cared for appropriately and shifting care to the private sector where allied health and social services are simply not available.

Blocking access to abortion care also blocks access to other care services – subjecting women to multiple appointments with different doctors and then telling them that they don’t know their own needs, effectively treating their actions as criminal. This usually results in the woman feeling victimised and marginalised and unlikely to attend care services. Thus the opportunity to actively support and intervene in the person’s life in a positive manner is lost. 

Providing Clarity

Abortion law reform is the first step in acknowledging the medical and psychosocial welfare needs of a significant proportion of pregnant women in Queensland, and de-stigmatising a relevant pregnancy option.

Women requesting and undergoing termination of pregnancy are not criminals needing to prove their innocence – they are women in need.

The Bill will improve clarity for health professionals and patients in the area of medical termination of pregnancy. There is a lack of clarity around what point during gestation a termination may be performed in Queensland. The Bill clarifies when care can be imparted to avoid prolonged approval and ethics processes (not conducted for the benefit of patients’ wellbeing but to substantiate lawfulness).

Section 20 provides that only qualified health practitioners may perform an abortion. It also provides that a doctor and a registered nurse are a qualified health practitioner for performing an abortion by administering a drug at the written direction of a doctor.

Protections at Abortion facility

Division 3 of the Bill concerns patient protection. Under Section 23 is Declarations for abortion facility. The Minister must, by written notice, declare an area around an abortion facility to be a protected area. An area declared to be protected area must be, at least 50m at any point from the abortion facility; and sufficient to ensure the privacy and unimpeded access for anyone entering, trying to enter or leaving the abortion facility; and no bigger than necessary.

Section 24 deals with Prohibited behaviour in relation to abortion facility. It says “A person in a protected area for an abortion facility, must not engage in prohibited behaviour.”

Capturing Images Prohibited

I concluded, Prohibited behaviour, in relation to an abortion facility, means harassment, hindering, intimidation, interference with, threatening or obstruction of a person, including by capturing images of the person, intended to stop the person from entering the facility; or having or performing an abortion in the facility; or an act that can be seen or heard by a person in the protected period for the facility, and intended to stop a person from entering the facility.

The protected period, for an abortion facility, is when the Minister has declared a period to be the protected period for the facility or otherwise the period between 7am and 6pm on each day the facility is open.

Section 25 says “A person must not publish images of another person entering or leaving, or trying to enter or leave, an abortion facility, without the other person’s consent; and with the intention of stopping a person from having or performing an abortion.

abortion law reform protest
Abortion Law Reform Protest

Last Minute Negotiations

The evening before my Bills were due to come back for a second reading, I received several calls from the ALP. They were desperate that I withdraw my Bills. The ALP didn’t want to lose two sitting days to debate my Bills. They also did not want to see the Bill put and voted down, causing a split in their ranks.

Some ALP MPs would certainly vote against the Bills, simply because I was the one moving them. They would cite deficiencies in the drafting of the bills. This was a ridiculous reason because MPs don’t draft Bills, the Office of Parliamentary Council does.

The LNP had also expressed that they would be voting against abortion law reform. For this reason I was keen to make the most of my leverage, I wanted to hear what the ALP was offering.

Attorney General Yvette D’Ath and the Deputy Premier Jackie Trad promised to refer abortion to the Law Reform Commission. Further, they committed to moving an abortion reform Bill in the next Parliament. In addition they agreed to front the media with me to commit. Accordingly I agreed to this, knowing it was the only way we would make the change.

Public Commitment

I had been around politics long enough to know you can never rely on any promise made in private. With this in mind, I agreed to attend a press conference with the Attorney-General and Deputy Premier.

Consequently, the next day, with me and in front of assembled press they both publicly committed to abortion law reform. They promised that a re-elected Palaszczuk Government would proceed with this reform.

abortion law reform media
Abortion Law Reform Media

Once the two senior ALP figures had committed to abortion law reform, it was conditional upon the Queensland ALP winning the next state election. However they were, largely thanks to an unpopular LNP Government in Canberra, strong favourites!

Fortunately, my judgement was sound. Following their re-election, Labor honoured our deal (and their public commitment). They passed a law decriminalising abortion in Queensland!

Timeline to Victory

abortion law reform timeline
Abortion Law Reform Timeline

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