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Abortion Law Reform – State of Play
23 / 12 / 2013
By Tanya Kovac
Putting women in parliament is the safest way to protect reproductive rights.
2013 was a busy year for the anti-choice lobby in Australia. In two jurisdictions – New South Wales and South Australia – attempts were made to introduce legislation threatening women’s reproductive freedom through indirect legislative recognition of foetal personhood. In Victoria, the anti-choice lobby infiltrated Liberal Party Council, gaining strategic support in their campaign to repeal sections of the Abortion Law Reform Act, while in Tasmania, decriminalisation of abortion in the Tasmanian Criminal Code, provided anti-choice advocates with opportunities to promote Emily’s voice, a new strategic anti-choice lobby group, established in direct opposition to the National pro-choice network, EMILY’s List Australia.
Each instance of anti-choice advocacy was met head on by progressive women in parliament, proving that the best defence against attacks to reproductive rights is getting pro-choice women elected to Parliament.
Zoe’s Law – foetal personhood in NSW
On 23 August 2013, The Crimes Amendment (Zoe’s Law) Bill No 2 was brought into New South Wales lower house by conservative Liberal MP for The Entrance, Chris Spence. The Bill created a new criminal offence for harming or destructing an unborn child, defined as a 20 week old foetus of more than 400 grams.
The origins of the Bill and its shorthand name come from a tragic event on Christmas Day 2009. Brodie Donegan, then 32 weeks pregnant, was hit by a car on the NSW central coast by a driver high on drugs and methadone, causing her to lose her baby. Although the driver responsible was charged and convicted of grievous bodily harm for injury inflicted to Brodie there was no separate offence of GBH for the unborn child. Brodie began advocating in the name of her unborn daughter, Zoe, calling for changes to the law.
Zoe’s Law No 1 was initially introduced into the NSW upper house by Reverend Fred Nile in February 2013, but failed to gain sufficient support. It was subsequently introduced into the lower house by Brodie’s local Liberal MP, Spence, and on 21 November 2013 passed 57 to 31 votes.
Many EMILY’s List MP’s spoke out against the Bill in the House. Deputy Opposition Leader, Linda Burney’s speech at the second reading sums up the case against the legislation perfectly.
“The bill creates an additional criminal offence that is not required or necessary. The Crimes Act provides significant penalties for harm to pregnant women. This bill, despite further amendments, still introduces the redefinition of a foetus as a living person, which is my fundamental problem with the bill. It has the very real potential to reduce a women’s control over her body and reduce access to reproductive health services, including termination. I cannot, in responding to one tragedy, perhaps create another: the loss of choice for women.”
The Bill is due to be debated in the Legislative Council in the New Year. Progressive, Labor women MP’s in the NSW lower and upper house are working alongside women’s groups, such as the Women’s Electoral Lobby, F Collective, Women’s Legal Services and Family Planning NSW to defeat the bill. EMILY’s List NSW Co-Convenor, Helen Westwood MP, along with other EMILY’s List MP’s in the upper house, Lynda Voltz, Penny Sharpe and Sophie Cotsis, will be at the frontline of this Bill next year where the vote is expected to be very tight.
Family First puts women last in South Australia
The South Australian Parliament has also seen regressive forces trying to strategically undermine a woman’s right to choose through legislation of foetal personhood.
The Criminal Law Consolidation (Offences Against Unborn Child) Amendment Bill was introduced as a Private Member’s Bill by Family First MLC, Robert Brokenshire in February 2013. Like Zoe’s Law in NSW, Offences Against the Unborn Child, is a deliberate attempt by conservatives to ban abortion through obscure amendments to the SA criminal code recognising foetal personhood.
The Bill came before the legislative council for debate on 28 November 2013 and was defeated in the Legislative Council. Lobbying within the Labor parliamentary caucus by EMILY’s List South Australia MP’s ensured the ALP voted against the bill on block, rather than leave it to the conscience of individual MPs. Although this was a significant win, the fight against foetal personhood isn’t over yet. Family First has indicated it will bring back similar legislation in the new Parliament, after the March 2014 South Australian election, where the Labor government is expected to face defeat.
Liberal Party un-Shaw about reproductive freedom
In Victoria, despite months of denials, abortion was once again on the agenda of the Conservative Government, thanks to controversial Liberal turned independent Member for Frankston, Geoff Shaw. Shaw, who holds the balance of power in the Victorian Parliament, has purportedly written to Premier Denis Napthine, seeking his assistance in overhauling the state’s abortion laws.
Napthine denies doing a deal with Shaw on abortion. But that didn’t stop the Victorian Liberal Party State Conference voting to support a repeal of Section 8 of the Victorian Abortion Law Reform Act paving the way to fulfil Shaw’s demands.
Shaw and the conservatives want to repeal Section 8 of the Act, which places obligations on health professionals who conscientiously object to performing abortions, to provide women with an appropriate referral to a doctor who will perform a termination. Section 8 also requires practitioners to perform terminations, regardless of their conscience, when women present with a life threatening medical emergency caused by the pregnancy.
Following outcry about this issue by the Victorian Women’s Trust, EMILY’s List Australia and other women’s groups, Napthine took the unprecedented step of recording a direct message to voters explaining that his Government would not be attempting to restrict women’s reproductive freedom. Napthine’s online address promised no changes to limit a woman’s right to choose, but was silent on reforms to conscientious objection.
It is clear that the Victorian Liberal Party has been captured by the campaign of Doctors of Conscience, a lobby group of conservative health practitioners, advocating for reforms to the Abortion Law Reform Act.
Abortion Law Reform is only 5 years old. It took women many decades of feminist organising to see the repeal of abortion from the Victorian statute book, but already the backlash against these reforms has begun.
Section 8’s provisions were hard fought by progressive MP’s, particularly women endorsed by EMILY’s List. They exist to ensure women can make informed, safe decisions about their health and to access high quality treatment in an emergency, regardless of the personal views of the doctor or health professional.
Women’s choice? Not if you’re Emily’s voice
The passage of the Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Act in late November was met with celebration by women’s groups as Tasmania decriminalised terminations. Former EMILY’s List National Co-Convenor and Tasmanian Health Minister, Michelle O’Byrne brought the legislation into the house as a private members bill in April 2013, with support from Premier Lara Giddings, also an EMILY’s List Australia member.
O’Byrne championed moving terminations from the criminal code into a health framework to remove uncertainty for women and medical professionals around the legality of termination procedures. “It will reduce the stigma around what is always an incredibly difficult and complex decision” O’Byrne said “Women should not have to make such a decision with the threat – real or imagined – of criminal charges.”
O’Byrne’s thoroughly researched and well-argued Second Reading Speech of the Bill is an excellent study on the advocacy women parliamentarians need to do for women’s reproductive rights and will no doubt be a useful resource for future campaigns in and outside parliament. O’Byrne, who benefited from mentoring and support from Candy Broad, the Victorian upper house MP whose private members bill led to Victoria’s abortion law reforms, ably showed how “restrictive laws do not reduce the incidence of terminations but instead negatively impact on the health and wellbeing outcomes of women.”
Although there were some amendments when it passed in the upper house, the Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Act retained an important limit on anti-choice campaigning – a prohibition on protesting, filming, intimidating or threatening patients within 150 metres of a termination clinic. This remarkable protection for women will no doubt be a benchmark in Australia but also across the globe.
Throughout the campaign to decriminalise abortion in Tasmania, anti-choice advocates used Emily’s Voice, to raise the profile of foetal personhood. With highly emotive, high end advertising, particularly videos and billboards, Emily’s voice calls on people to “Fall in Love with the Unborn”. Its advocacy is focused on raising awareness about when the foetal heart first begins to beat, utilising neo-natal technological advances to support their case. A full explanation of the organisation’s strategy is available online.
Anti-choice advocates continue to be well funded and well organised agents against reproductive freedom for women in Australia. They run campaigns against progressive women MP’s, lobby strategically for legislation in their ideological best interests and bring out high profile speakers from the United States anti-choice lobby, such as Bette Grande, a Republican member in North Dakota responsible for the US’s most hard line anti-choice legislation in the country.
Protecting a woman’s right to choose requires vigilance within parliament and outside of it to respond to strategic campaigns and backlash. While organising and awareness raising on the ground by women’s groups is important, the only way to protect against legislative reform is to ensure we have more progressive, pro-choice Parliamentarians, prepared to vote against regressive laws.
Right now, pre-selections are under way to select ALP candidates for a number of state seats where abortion is a live, contentious issue such as Victoria, Tasmania and South Australian. Pro-choice women will need financial and other support if they are to defeat Zoe’s Law and other attempts to undermine a woman’s right to choose. So don’t get mad, (help good women) get elected.
Tanja Kovac is the National Co-Convenor of EMILY’s List Australia, a national network of progressive Labor women MP’s committed to choice, equity, diversity, better childcare and equal pay. You can donate to EMILY’s List Australia here.
Tanja Kovac is a writer, lawyer and the National Co-Convenor of EMILY’s List Australia.