The often controversial and divisive debate around NSW abortion laws has dominated much of the news in Australia over the past few months.
Heated discussions around gestation periods, gender selection and the conscientious objection of doctors have highlighted conflicting views both in parliament, and within our society.
However, after a lengthy battle to introduce a reform bill, abortion in New South Wales was finally decriminalised this morning. Here’s everything you need to know about the NSW abortion laws:
The NSW abortion law reform bill states that the service is allowed up to 22 weeks of gestation, after which it can be performed with the approval of two “specialist medical practitioners” – meaning an obstetrician or doctor with experience in obstetrics.
Other amendments to the bill include all terminations after 22 weeks must be performed in a public hospital and it is now a crime punishable up to two years in jail to coerce a person to either prevent or force them to have an abortion.
Health care practitioners are also obligated to give appropriate medical care if a termination results in a live baby being born, and there is a ban on sex-selection abortion.
It’s a huge victory for women all over the country, and a positive step towards a future where women have the right to make decisions about their own bodies, without government involvement.
But how do we compare with the rest of Australia, and the rest of the world?
Abortion was decriminalised in Queensland in 2018, and is available on request for the first 22 weeks of gestation.
After this period, a second medical practitioner must be consulted to determine if the termination should proceed. The bill also ensured 150m safe zones enacted around termination services.
Prior to the bill passing, it was a crime to perform an abortion, access an abortion, or supply drugs and instruments to be used in an abortion in Queensland – whether the woman was pregnant or not.
Abortions could, however, be lawfully performed if it was in order to protect a woman’s life or her physical and mental health. Sadly, this didn’t include rape, incest and fetal anomaly as grounds for a lawful abortion.
In 2016, two years before abortion was decriminalised in Queensland, Justice Duncan McMeekin authorised a 12-year-old girl to undergo an abortion because of a risk of self-harm or suicide.
Abortion advocates criticised the need for the court to be involved in the decision, which they argued should only involve the girl and medical staff. This led to the eventual decriminalisation of abortion in Queensland.
The Victoria Abortion Law Reform Act was introduced in 2008, allowing the service on request up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. Like Queensland, after 24 weeks two doctors must agree that the abortion go ahead based on the woman’s current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances.
Victorian law also ensures the 150m ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics, making it illegal for anti-abortion protestors to harrass or film patients.
In 1986, police raided the rooms of Dr. Ian McGoldrick after health authorities claimed he was conducting “illegal” abortions on underage girls. McGoldrick was later cleared of charges, but the case was a prime example of the risks faced by doctors performing the service, as well as women seeking the service.
Abortion has been decriminalised in Tasmania since 2013, and is available on request up to 16 weeks of pregnancy. Again, after 16 weeks, multiple doctors must be consulted to determine if the abortion should go ahead. Tasmania also has enforced the 150m safe zones around abortion clinics.
Unfortunately, there are very few health care professionals or clinics offering abortion services in Tasmania. In mid-2018, a rally to improve access to abortion services in Tasmania was organised after the state’s only clinic closed.
In response, the Tasmanian Government extended a travel assistance scheme to women who are referred to Melbourne specialists for their surgical abortions. However, many women are still fronting private costs and flights to Melbourne.
Not-for-profit private abortion clinic Marie Stopes Australia made a proposal to the State Government to open a clinic in Hobart, but made little to no progress with MPs.
The Rest Of Australia
As for the rest of Australia, abortion was decriminalised in South Australia since 1969 up to 28 weeks of pregnancy, in Western Australia since 1998 up to 20 weeks, and the Northern Territory in 2017 up to 24 weeks.
All three states offer 150-metre safe access zones around abortion clinics and in SA, the service is available for free or at a low cost at various public health facilities.
Across the pond, abortion laws get even murkier. In Ireland, abortion was decriminalised in 2018, and is permitted during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. After this period of time, it can only be performed if a woman’s life or health is at risk, or in the case of foetal abnormality.
In 2012, Savita Halappanar was an Indian woman living in Ireland who died as a result of being denied an abortion while suffering a septic miscarriage. Halappanar’s tragic death encouraged the repeal of The Eighth Amendment, which prohibited abortion and guaranteed to protect the right to life of the unborn, and the mother.
In May of 2018, Irish citizens voted on the issue of abortion and the repeal of The Eighth Amendment. Over 2M people voted, with 66.4% voting ‘yes’ to legalise abortion and change the constitution.
In the United States, abortion laws get even more complicated. The service is legal in all U.S. states, however, earlier this year, Alabama’s governor signed an aggressive anti-abortion law that would permit the service only if the mother’s life is at risk or if the fetus cannot service. It would not be permitted in the case of rape or incest.
A growing number of U.S. states took Alabama’s lead, including Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia, who are looking to ban abortion as soon as a heartbreat is detected.
While these laws are yet to go into effect, they demonstrate the ease in which government bodies are able to make decisions on behalf of women, and the lack of control we have over our own bodies.
In Australia, we have made progress by legalising abortion in all states, but there is clearly a long way to go to give women the rights they deserve.