Victoria’s abortion law reform

By Kim Bullimore

On October 7, the upper house of the Victorian state parliament will vote on the Victorian Abortion Reform Bill, which was passed in the lower house on September 11 by 48 votes to 35. The bill, which was moved on behalf of the state Labor government by women’s affairs minister Maxine Morand, is based on a Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) report recommending the removal of abortion from the Victorian Crimes Act.

Currently under Section 65 of the Victorian Crimes Act (1958), a woman who has an abortion is liable to between five and 10 years imprisonment, while a medical practitioner who provides an abortion can be jailed for up to five years. If passed, the bill would be a significant advance, but falls short of the widely supported “Option C” in the VLRC report — full decriminalisation — by maintaining restrictions on abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Under the government’s proposed legislation, after 24 weeks a woman seeking an abortion must gain the approval of two doctors who have considered “all relevant circumstances”, including “the woman’s current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances” and “reasonably believes that the abortion is appropriate in all the circumstances”. While women would no longer face criminal charges for having abortions, medical practitioners who perform abortions after 24 weeks would still face criminal penalties if it is deemed that they have incorrectly determined the “appropriateness” of the abortion.

During the debate in the lower house, more than 40 amendments were moved, the majority of which sought to either reduce the 24-week upper limit on unrestricted abortions or impose other restrictions. Labor MP Christine Campbell moved several amendments to water down the bill, including an amendment, which was defeated, to make counseling compulsory for all women who seek an abortion and mandating that the “independent” counsellor not be associated with the performance of the abortion or the facility at which the abortion would be conducted. Victorian sports minister James Merlino, who branded the Morand legislation as “extreme”, also moved a number of amendments. He told the September 12 Age that the unamended bill would allow “open slather” on abortion and would encourage women from other states to travel to Victoria to terminate pregnancies. No amendment was moved to remove the 24 week limit.

In a stunt designed to derail the bill, Catholic Archbishop Dennis Hart told the media that the maternity and emergency departments in the 15 Catholic hospitals in Victoria will be closed if the bill passes the upper house. Hart claimed the threat is in protest against the requirement under the bill that doctors who claim conscientious objection to carrying out an abortion be required to refer a woman to a doctor who would carry out an abortion. But this objection has very little to do with the choices of doctors and everything to do with the Catholic Church’s opposition to women choosing abortion.

Campaign strategy

Much of the focus of abortion rights campaigners in the lead up to the debate in parliament was on the lobbying of MPs. This was organised through Pro-Choice Victoria. However, grassroots activists, many of whom have been involved in the monthly protests to defend the historic Fertility Control Clinic against the anti-abortion brigade, organised a demonstration on September 6 in support of full decriminalisation of abortion. The demonstration, which was attended by around 150 people, was organised around the demand for “full abortion rights” at “all stages of pregnancy”. Speakers at the rally also called for “free, accessible abortion on demand”.

In organising for this rally differences emerged in relation to opposing the proposed 24-week limit on unrestricted abortion. Victorian Greens MP Colleen Hartland and Liberty Victoria’s Anne O’Rourke expressed the view to rally organisers that the campaign strategy should be to appeal to MPs to vote for the legislation rather than to mobilise abortion rights supporters for full abortion rights. They opposed the demands of the rally as being “provocative”, favouring instead a rally that did not draw attention to the issue of the 24-week limit or the fact that it would undermine the fundamental right of women to full control of their bodies at all stages of pregnancy.

On September 8, Hartland, O’Rourke and Pro-Choice campaigner Leslie Cannold and others published a letter in The Age that stated: “While women compelled to consider termination at later gestations need our support, the bill is not primarily about them. It is about us: the majority of Victorians of reproductive age who will be governed by this law and the one in three women who will have an abortion in her lifetime.”

This “strategy” of ostensibly supporting a women’s right to choose at all stages of pregnancy but then refusing to defend this right unequivocally or to use language which explicitly supports this fundamental right, opportunistically accommodates to anti-abortionists’ rhetoric aimed at undermining the right of women to control their own bodies by falling into the trap of being defensive about late-term abortions.

Such defensiveness has enabled the anti-abortion lobby in other countries to roll back abortion rights. In the US, for example, this was done with the misnamed Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, signed into law by US President George Bush in 2003. This bans late-term abortions which use the dilation and extraction method, where the fetus is partially removed from the uterus into the birth canal before being aborted. This is the safest option for women requiring abortions after the first trimester.

Late-term abortion is also the target of Tasmanian Senator Guy Barnett who has moved a motion in the Senate to ban Medicare funding for abortions carried out after 14 weeks. On September 16, this motion was referred to the Senate’s finance and public administration committee which will investigate the number and cost of abortions. The committee will report on November 30.

Anti-abortionists have sought to couch their opposition to late-term abortion in rhetoric about “morality” and a woman’s “vulnerability”. However, their opposition to late-term abortions is not based on concern for a woman’s wellbeing. It is based on opposition to the right of women to choose abortion at any stage of pregnancy. They are campaigning to force women to carry through with unwanted pregnancies.

A foetus may have the potential to become a baby, as it does at all stages of pregnancy, but that potential is wholly conditional on the physical welfare of the woman. As long as the foetus is part of a woman’s body, it is her right to choose whether or not to continue with a pregnancy. It’s true that the safety of pregnancy termination declines with increasing pregnancy duration, but late-term abortion is statistically safer than carrying a pregnancy to full term. For years, feminist abortion rights supporters campaigned on the slogan “as early as possible, as late as necessary”. There is absolutely no reason for feminists to compromise or be defensive about this position.

[Kim Bullimore is a long-time women’s liberation activist and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party. She was the convenor of the Sydney International Women’s Day Collective from 2000 – 2003 and is active in the Victorian pro-choice campaign.]