New South Wales Parliament has resumed for 2017 and I’m optimistic this is the year we finally make sure that women and all people who seek abortion can do so with full legal certainty of the law, without a shadow of criminality. You see, unlike Tasmania, the ACT and Victoria, in NSW abortion is still a criminal offence in Division 12, sections 82-84 of the NSW Crimes Act 1900. In fact, NSW and Queensland are the only two states in Australia where more than a century old abortion offences remain unchanged in the Crimes Act.
I introduced the Abortion Law Reform (Miscellaneous Acts Amendment) Bill 2016 into NSW Parliament in August last year, and I am pushing for debate in May this year. As we gear up for debate on the Bill, it is important to remember that there was a time not too long ago when foetal personhood laws (Zoe’s Law) passed the New South Wales Parliament’s Lower House. This dangerous law would have further eroded the already precarious nature of a woman’s right to control her own body. After much campaigning, the Bill reached an impasse in the Upper House. But its passage through the Lower House was a sharp reminder of the continuing legal criminality of abortion in New South Wales.
Exceptions established by the now famous Levine ruling allow for lawful abortions if there is ‘any economic, social or medical ground or reason’ upon which a doctor reasonably believes that it is required to avoid a ‘serious danger to the pregnant woman’s life or her physical or mental health.’ This, however, is a precarious grey area of law that risks both prosecution and persecution of women and doctors. Many doctors do not perform abortions because of this risk. Services are privatised, expensive and scarce, especially for rural and regional women.
The Greens Bill decriminalises abortion, and enacts safe access zones outside clinics where pregnancy terminations are performed.
It’s been finalised after a long and intense consultation process with legal and medical professionals, academics, and women’s groups.
The people's will
The community have made it clear that they want the law to be clarified.
The campaign in support of the Bill is gaining momentum across the state. Thousands of people across NSW have signed petitions and postcards to send a strong message to their MPs to vote for the Bill.
We’ve held events across Sydney and in Byron, Bega, Albury, Newcastle and Gosford. Public forums on abortion law reform have been packed full of people. Specific NSW polling shows that there is widespread support, with 73% of people in NSW supporting decriminalisation of abortion and 81% supporting the creation of safe access zones to stop the harassment and abuse experienced by patients. This support cuts across party political lines, age, gender and geographic divides.
The Abortion Law Reform Bill has been endorsed by The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG), the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, the National Teachers Education Union (NTEU), NSW Teachers Federation, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, and Family Planning NSW. More than one hundred law and criminology academics from universities in NSW have signed a letter urging the NSW government to support these much-needed changes.
We can act now
Those who say there isn’t enough support in the community or ‘now is not the right time’ surely have their heads buried in the sand.
What we have in front of us is an opportunity for MPs to truly represent their communities, listen to their stories, hear them out, and bring the law in line with reality and modern medical practice. It is time for those who claim to stand for gender equality to grant the same reproductive rights enjoyed by those who live in Victoria, the ACT and Tasmania to the people of NSW.
It is time to end the silence, the taint of criminality, clarify the law and make sure that reproductive healthcare choices can be made with the full certainty of the law.
The time for heel-dragging is over. In 2017, it is time for NSW Parliament to confront the issue they have been avoiding for over one hundred years.