It's time to break the silence on abortion law in NSW

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Mehreen Faruqi

Mehreen Faruqi: "The people of NSW neither want nor deserve these archaic laws."

Mehreen Faruqi: "The people of NSW neither want nor deserve these archaic laws." Photo: Fairfax Media

Today is the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion. Originating in Latin America and the Caribbean, the day was set on September 28th to coincide with the day slavery was abolished in Brazil and calls for the liberation of women's wombs. This may seem like a far stretch to many, but the truth is that lack of safe abortions is a reality for many women around the world – 21.6 million experience unsafe abortions each year and for 47,000 of them, it is a death sentence.

In Australia, after decades of stagnation, abortion law reform is gaining pace. Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT have decriminalised abortion. Exclusion zones outside fertility control clinics, which protect people seeking an abortion from harassment and intimidation, exist in Tasmania and are currently under consideration in Victoria and the ACT.

But sadly, the 28th of September is a stark reminder here in my home state of New South Wales of how far we still have to go.  

A lonely protester stands outside the Fertility Control Clinic in Englehardt Street, Albury. A security guard mans the door.

A lonely protester stands outside the Fertility Control Clinic in Englehardt Street, Albury. A security guard mans the door. Photo: Brad Newman

Abortion is still a criminal offence here, as it has been for more than a hundred years. The people of NSW neither want nor deserve these archaic laws.

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Section 82 and 83 in Division 12 of the Crimes Act 1900 in NSW make abortion a criminal offence on part of both the doctor and the woman if performed 'unlawfully'. The lawfulness of abortion in NSW — a health matter and a medical procedure — hangs precariously on the interpretation of the law by a District Court ruling in 1971. The judge deemed that an abortion would be lawful under certain circumstances where it is necessary to prevent serious risk to life, mental and physical health. It is under this uncertain and confusing law that abortions are currently undertaken in NSW. This is simply not good enough — not for people needing abortions and not for doctors and health professionals.

We know that public support for abortion law reform is local, national, and global. It's the politicians who need to play catch up. As I travel around the state it becomes clear that many people do not even realise that abortion is in the Crimes Act, until they or someone they know needs to access one. Because abortion is still in the Crimes Act, there is stigma, taboo and the stain of criminality attached to it. No one speaks about it. There is silence.

Dr Mehreen Faruqi and Dr Kathy Lewis at the Fertility Control Clinic in Englehardt Street, Albury.

Dr Mehreen Faruqi and Dr Kathy Lewis at the Fertility Control Clinic in Englehardt Street, Albury. Photo: Brad Newman

Last week I hosted a forum on abortion law reform in Albury and started a public conversation about how to make this change. It is extraordinary that a medical procedure which attracts criminal liability and a possible jail term if performed in Albury would have no such penalty – no such stigma – if carried out just across the border, in Wodonga, Victoria.

The community in Albury, like many regional areas, is well aware of the issues surrounding access to reproductive health services. Not only is there only one clinic serving the area, but there is ongoing persecution of people entering and leaving it. Aggressive and intimidatory tactics, such as filming and offensive material, used by anti-abortion groups and individuals outside clinics to harass and intimidate women must be stopped. Doctors and clinic staff should not have to run a gauntlet just to get to work to administer a basic medical procedure. This would not be acceptable for any other health matter.

Creating exclusion zones would provide safe access and peace of mind for women walking into a clinic for a medical procedure. This is not about stopping people from having different views or expressing them but ensuring that everyone's right to medical privacy with respect and dignity is enforced.

The silence on abortion has gone on for far too long in NSW. Do we continue down this path with the shadow of criminality hanging over doctors for performing a medical procedure and women for their right to bodily autonomy? Do we continue to shroud abortion in secrecy, stigma and legal uncertainty?

I, like the overwhelming majority of Australian citizens, believe it is time to break the silence and unambiguously declare a woman's right to her own body.

The 28th of September is a stark reminder that things need to change in NSW and that the public conversation we have been avoiding for a very long time must commence now.

That's why I have launched the #end12 campaign and given notice of a bill in NSW Parliament that would decriminalise abortion and ensure safe access. The grassroots campaign to make this a reality is gaining momentum and it is only the people of our state who will be able to convince politicians it is a debate worth having, and a change that must be supported.