The five biggest moments in reproductive (in)justice in 2013


Ruby Hamad

Mammoth filibuster: Wendy Davis.

Mammoth filibuster: Wendy Davis. Photo: AP

2013 has been a tumultuous year for women’s reproductive rights. Every encouraging step forward, such as the decriminalisation of abortion in Tasmania, was tempered by a giant step back such as the nightmare otherwise known as Zoe’s Law.

As we look back on the year that was and brace ourselves for what is likely to be an even rockier year ahead, it is worth reflecting on those words spoken by a certain wise, but much maligned woman, who predicted just how easily our autonomy could be reduced to the “political plaything of men who think they know better.”

Here are my picks for the five biggest moments in reproductive (in)justice in 2013.


5. Ireland’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act

Ireland has some of the most draconian abortion laws in the western world, criminalising abortion except in cases involving risk to the life of the pregnant woman. However, Irish women were granted something of a reprieve in July of this year when President Michael Higgins signed off on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. Despite its creepily “pro-life” sounding moniker, the new law expands the definition to include risk of death due to suicide as well as physical illness.  Though a definite step forward given that country’s famously regressive stance on abortion, the law still allows no provisions for rape or incest, although Irish women are generously permitted to travel to the UK for abortions at their own expense

4. RU486 gets PBS Listing

Things were looking up for Australian women back in June when the Federal Labor government added RU486, otherwise known as the abortion pill, to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). Previously setting women back to the tune of up to $800, the PBS listing reduced the cost of the pill to less than $37, and in the droll words of then Health Minister Tanya Plibersek, gives “women slightly more choice and more options.”  Little did we know what the NSW parliament had in store for us come November…

3. Wendy Davis Filibuster

No discussion of women’s reproductive rights would be complete without mention of Democrat Wendy Davis’s epic 11-hour filibuster in the Texas Senate’s July special session. Davis was attempting to block a Republican bill that wouldban abortions after 20 weeks and oblige doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Given that the majority of abortion-performing doctors are flown in from other cities or even states, the bill would effectively close almost all abortion clinics in Texas.

Davis’s filibuster, which required her to remain standing and talk continuously with no food or toilet breaks for 13 hours, was ultimately unsuccessful as she was ruled to have gone “off-topic” two hours short of the midnight target. Although her effort bought some time, meaning the Senate could not vote on the measure by the midnight target, after much shady Republican shenanigans the bill was eventually passed by both the House and the Senate, striking a devastating blow for Texan women.

2. Tasmania Decriminalises Abortion

Back home and in a rare piece of good news for abortion rights, Tasmania quietly became only the third state or territory (after the ACT and Victoria) to remove abortion from its criminal code.  Despite a barrage of opposition from anti-choice groups such the sneakily named Emily’s Voice, Tasmanian women can now legally obtain terminations up to 16 weeks and -with the written agreement of two doctors- beyond.

1. Zoe’s Law II Passes NSW Lower House

Sadly, the Tasmanian victory was overshadowed by the travesty occurring in NSW on the very same day. On Thursday, November 21, 2013, the NSW lower house, ignoring the protestations from legal and medical professionals, passed Zoe’s Law II, a bill recognising foetal personhood from 20 weeks.

The bill was co-written by Liberal MP Chris Spence and Brodie Donegan (above), the woman who lost her 8-month foetus after being hit by an intoxicated driver.  Despite their assurances that the bill “does not apply to lawful abortion”, the concept of foetal personhood has proven to be catastrophic for the rights of pregnant women all over the world.

Zoe’s Law, which is almost certain to pass the upper house next year, is the biggest story in reproductive rights this year because its implications will extend far beyond abortion access. Foetal personhood stigmatises pregnant women, leaving them open to public judgement and legal prosecution where they are considered to have acted contrarily to the interests of the “separate individual” they carry.

Nightmare scenarios that result from legally separating the foetus from the woman include women in Nicaragua being jailed for up to forty years for having miscarriages, with judges chastising them for “not doing enough” to save their foetus; a US woman been charged for refusing to take medication while pregnant (she was denied a court-appointed lawyer, although a lawyer will be representing her  foetus); and a New York judge allowing a mother’s abortion to be used against her in a custody battle.  Never mind personhood for foetuses, whatever happened to personhood for women?

 (Dis)Honourable Mentions:

When compiling a list such as this, it is important to note that every development is happening in a global environment that is overwhelmingly hostile to women’s reproductive autonomy. Here are some other happenings that sum up the perilous state of women’s reproductive rights in 2013.

In the US, the Obamacare birth control mandate requiring for-profit organisations to include contraception in their workers health-coverage, has been ruled unconstitutional by a U.S appeals court. The suit was brought by a pair of brothers chagrined that their produce-distribution business cannot exclude birth control from its coverage on religious grounds. It now looks likely that the US Supreme Court will take up the issue.

Spanish women took to the streets in July, in protest of a proposal by the conservative Popular Party government to change existing abortion laws, including removing provisions permitting abortion in cases of foetal deformity, and implementing a requirement for parental permission for 16 and 17 year olds seeking abortions. The proposals are wildly out of step with the opinions of the Spanish people- including conservatives.  One poll found a whopping 81 percent of 1,000 people surveyed didn’t want the law changed. 

Finally, Ecuador’s supposedly left-wing president Rafael Correa impetuously threatened to resign when that country’s National Assembly indicated an intent to decriminalise abortion as part of its sweeping reform of the criminal code. Abortion is only legal in Ecuador in cases of rape where the victim is mentally disabled. Women who obtain illegal abortions are subject to prison sentences from one to five years, but that hasn’t stopped women from seeking them. Unsafe abortions killed at least 10 women and girls last year, with the real number likely much higher since complete medical records are impossible to obtain. But to give you an idea, in 2011, “hospitals in Ecuador treated more than 23,000 cases of disease, disability, or physical harm related to “unspecified” abortions.”

Fortunately, Rafael Correa is currently harbouring Julian Assange in the Ecuadorean embassy in London and has offered asylum to Edward Snowden so we don’t have to worry that he is hostile to human rights or anything.

That is, of course, unless you actually believe that women are human.