We need to talk about our abortion laws

We have laws, in NSW and Queensland, that are essentially making liars out of doctors.

We have laws, in NSW and Queensland, that are essentially making liars out of doctors. Photo: Getty

Imagine if you could end up in court, just for doing your job. That is the daily experience of the men and women who provide abortion in NSW and Queensland.

new study of abortion providers in the two states found they live in daily fear that their work, performing what is one of the most common medical procedures in the country, could land them in court.

As one NSW practitioner put it:

“…the bottom line is, for me, working here in a public institution, looking after women who don’t have anywhere else to go, that’s what my job is, and at some stage, I will be in court, I think. No doubt.”

Advertisement

The situation is made all the worse by the fact that screening for chromosomal abnormalities such as Down syndrome is routinely offered to women… despite the fact that if they are found to have a problem they could face criminal prosecution if they terminate the pregnancy on that basis.

And this isn’t a rare situation. By the time a woman is 30 she has about a one in 1000 risk of giving birth to a baby with Down syndrome. By the time she reaches 40, that chance has shot up to one in 84.

The guidelines from our peak medical body, the National Health and Medical Research Council (pdf) instruct GPs to offer the tests to every single pregnant woman they treat.

While they say that before testing doctors should have a “full discussion” with women about the implications of the possible results, including methods of termination, the woeful state of abortion laws in some parts of Australia are basically ignored.

Nowhere does it mention, for example, that a woman in NSW is only allowed to proceed with an abortion if having the child would present a serious threat to her life or mental health.

Or that NSW law outright bans abortion, and it is only the decisions of judges in various cases over the years that have broadened the occasions when it can be provided.

That’s because doctors feel that if the woman does decided to have a termination they must “construct a case” to show the abortion is legal, says Kirsten Black, a doctor and senior lecturer at the University of Sydney who co-authored the research paper.

“Doctors feel they have to create a case for mental illness essentially,” she says. “Women in NSW are offered screening… but once they are diagnosed with a foetal abnormality there is no easy pathway for them to terminate the pregnancy.”

If they decide to terminate the pregnancy before 20 weeks, there is usually little impediment to them getting the procedure. But after 20 weeks hospital ethics panels start getting involved, and the process becomes harder.

The net result of all these hoops, Black says, is that there are huge inequalities between the access women have to abortion.

“The vast majority have to go private,” she says. “I think there’s really big inequality of access, both between rural areas and urban areas… you have to pay and it’s expensive”.

Yet abortion is one of the most common medical procedures in Australia, with Black estimating about 70,000 are performed every year.

Over the course of her lifetime, one in four women will have an abortion.

“It’s important, it’s a common health issue and there should be more access to publicly funded services,” she says.

So we have laws, in NSW and Queensland, that are essentially making liars out of doctors. Criminals out of women who want to act on the results of a test the government says they should be offered. And is furthering the health disparities between rich and poor, city and country.

Victoria changed their abortion laws back in 2008, and the sky didn’t fall in. The ACT changed theirs back in 2002.

Why can’t NSW and Queensland catch up?

63 comments

  • Its disgusting that still, in 2013, a woman's body isnt her own. How can we ever have equality between sexes when women are the only gender without basic rights over their own internal body parts.

    Commenter
    Rachael
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    February 07, 2013, 9:35AM
    • The law wrongly allows abortion on the grounds of mental health.

      I saw a program recently where a psychologist said that all psych's (both for and against abortion) said the worst thing to do is to allow a woman an abortion on the grounds of mental health because it will only worsen her mental health.

      All psychs agreed that abortion will not really solve a womans mental health problem.

      Commenter
      Free Thinker
      Date and time
      February 07, 2013, 1:13PM
    • Rachel, the issue simply has nothing to do with equality. The question is "does the unborn child have a right to life." Does a woman have the right to terminate their baby after birth? Of course not! So on what basis is it ok to terminate before birth? I reject your assertion that the unborn child is just another part of the woman's body - logically that doesn't make sense. They are unique and distinct from one another. There's an elevated level of dependence, but does dependence define the value of human life?

      Commenter
      Pete
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 07, 2013, 1:43PM
    • Rachael, a baby in your womb, is not one of your 'internal body parts'.... a baby is a new human being with its own complete system. They are not a 'liver' or a 'stomach'. A woman has the privilege of nurturing this other human being for 9 months - and it IS a privilege. We need to remind ourselves, as women, that we are caretakers of another human life.

      Commenter
      Molly
      Date and time
      February 07, 2013, 2:23PM
    • "..all psych's (both for and against abortion) said the worst thing to do is to allow a woman an abortion on the grounds of mental health because it will only worsen her mental health"

      Sources, please.

      "All psychs agreed that abortion will not really solve a womans mental health problem"

      Re-read the article. It said nothing about abortion "solving" mental health problems.

      Commenter
      Donna Joy
      Date and time
      February 07, 2013, 2:27PM
    • @Pete - unborn child is a contradiction in terms. For a child to exist, they need to be born. Prior to that, they are a foetus, an embryo and a zygote.

      The question I ask you Pete, as you appear to be a pro-birther, is are you willing to provide support to all the women who you force to carry to term. Whether that be in assistance in raising the child or mental support for those who give them up for adoption, these women will need help. Will you and your male pro-birther buddies help out, or do you only care to enforce women to carry foetus to term.

      Commenter
      ST
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 07, 2013, 2:27PM
    • "Rachel, the issue simply has nothing to do with equality. "

      Actually, Pete, that is *exactly* what the issue has to do with. With respect, Rachel and I, as women, probably have a bit more experience in this area that you.

      Commenter
      Donna Joy
      Date and time
      February 07, 2013, 2:31PM
    • @Pete

      How can a foetus have a "right to life" if it cannot survive on its own separate and distinct from the mother's body? It can't because it doesn't have a life to have a right over. The woman's rights over her own body must take priority. It is not for you, or anybody else, to have any say over what a woman does with her own body. If a woman wants to amputate her own foot, she can do that. If a woman wants to remove a foetus from her womb, she can do that too. End of story.

      Commenter
      T
      Date and time
      February 07, 2013, 2:42PM
    • @Pete

      How can a foetus have a "right to life" if it cannot survive on its own separate and distinct from the mother's body? It can't because it doesn't have a life to have a right over. The woman's rights over her own body must take priority. It is not for you, or anybody else, to have any say over what a woman does with her own body. If a woman wants to amputate her own foot, she can do that. If a woman wants to remove a foetus from her womb, she can do that too. End of story.

      Commenter
      T
      Date and time
      February 07, 2013, 2:42PM
    • @Free Thinker (ironic name there) and @Pete. So you've worked out when life begins, have you? Best tell the entire medical fraternity because they don't seem to have an answer. Most terminations are performed at around 4-6 weeks, when the 'baby' is a collection of cells in the process of dividing. If that's not part of the woman's body then I'm the brother of the father of a lower primate.

      Commenter
      Sophia H
      Date and time
      February 07, 2013, 3:11PM

More comments

Comments are now closed