The erosion of gender equality, social support and democratic integrity by conservative governments across the world over the past decade is a reminder that hard-fought victories for basic rights cannot be taken for granted. Even in Australia, there is much work still to be done.
By Senator Larissa Waters
“The campaign for the right to choose abortion is one of the oldest and hardest fought of women’s political struggles.”
On 24 June 2022, the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that guaranteed abortion as a constitutional right, protecting the procedure from the religious and patriarchal whims of conservative state governments.
A draft decision indicating that Roe v Wade would be overturned had been leaked earlier in the year, but it seemed almost impossible to believe that such a regressive step could be taken in 2022. Almost impossible.
The erosion of gender equality, social support, and democratic integrity by conservative governments across the world over the past decade should have made the decision less surprising. It is a reminder that hard-fought victories for basic rights cannot be taken for granted, and there is much work still to be done.
The decision to overturn Roe v Wade has left access to safe, legal abortion to be determined by US state legislatures. I say access to safe, legal abortion, because people will still access abortions. All the decision does is make it unnecessarily traumatic, expensive and dangerous to access a common healthcare procedure.
By leaving regulation to the states, access to safe, legal abortion will become a lottery, determined by geography and whether you have the resources to travel interstate and pay for the procedure, whether you can get time off work without risking your job, whether you can find someone to care for your kids or cover your shifts while you’re away. It takes what should be a simple, private healthcare decision and makes it a complex logistical and financial juggling act with excruciating consequences.
While the decision to overturn Roe v Wade has no direct impact on Australian law, it is not without impact here. As Prudence Flowers, Senior Lecturer in US History at Flinders University, has said:
“The end of Roe v. Wade … will likely have symbolic consequences globally, shaping the strategies and tactics of the trans-national anti-abortion movement.”
In the last term of parliament, a member of the Liberal National Party introduced a controversial “right to life” Bill to parliament. The Assistant Minister for Women (and several other Liberal and National MPs) spoke at anti-abortion rallies. Marie Stopes was forced to close reproductive health clinics in regional areas and no lifeline was offered by the government.
As recently as 2020, the Queensland LNP and One Nation pledged to roll back the Termination of Pregnancy Act 2018 that supports the right to reproductive health and bodily autonomy.
Having endured the bitter debate over the Religious Discrimination Bill, we know a little of what to expect if this issue is weaponised in Australia. This is not a time for complacency.
Australia is strongly pro-choice and has been for decades. All states other than Western Australia have decriminalised abortion and have safe-access zones around clinics to ensure people seeking this safe and legal healthcare service are not harassed.
The turnout at rallies across the country in the wake of the US Supreme Court decision serve as a warning to politicians that Australians will not stand by and let reproductive healthcare be attacked.
But access to safe and legal abortion is still not universal and remains a ‘postcode lottery’ across Australia. Abortion services can be prohibitively expensive (particularly if you don’t have a Medicare card) and many people in regional areas still have to travel hundreds of kilometres to get a termination.
The rules for accessing terminations differ between states, and some doctors in regional areas who have a conscientious objection to abortion still refuse to make referrals, despite legal requirements to refer patients to other providers.
There is a shortage of surgeons trained to provide abortion services, and very few GPs are certified to prescribe drugs to induce a medical abortion. Regional areas are often served by fly-in doctors, rather than having a local provider. Telehealth has helped, but barriers to access remain.
For people of colour, migrants, trans and non-binary people, accessing services can be even harder.
Limited access can mean patients are waiting up to six weeks for abortions, a critical delay for a time-sensitive procedure. It should not be this difficult to access healthcare.
The National Women’s Health Strategy 2020 – 2030 identifies access to reproductive healthcare as a key priority and aims to “strengthen access pathways to sexual and reproductive health services across the country, particularly in rural and remote areas”.
The Greens have called repeatedly for abortions, a wide range of contraceptive options and other reproductive health services to be provided fee-free in public hospitals and covered by Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
I welcome the recent Queensland government announcement that abortions would be provided in public hospitals in central Queensland, but more must be done. In 2019, federal Labor committed to requiring public hospitals to provide abortion services as a condition of receiving Commonwealth funding. Albanese has since walked away from that commitment. I will continue to call for Labor to restore the previous policy and use their funding power to ensure people can access free abortions at all public hospitals across the country.
Victims of sexual, domestic and family violence; people who cannot carry a baby to term without putting their life at risk; and people under financial or housing stress are clear examples of people who should be able to terminate a pregnancy if they choose to. But the right to choose must extend to everyone. Our bodies, our choice.
The recent Children by Choice statement in response to the decision to overturn Roe v Wade said:
“Each person knows what the best choice is for themselves, for their health, their body and their future. They should be able to feel safe and in control of their bodies and be free to decide whether and when to have a child.”
This year marks 50 years since Children by Choice was launched in Queensland. Thanks to the tireless efforts of so many staunch advocates, much progress has been made since then that we cannot allow to be undone.
Abortion is health care. It should be accessible, affordable, safe, legal, compassionate, and free from stigma. The Greens will keep fighting until we get there.
Larissa Waters is a senator for Queensland and the Australian Greens’ spokesperson on women.
Hero image: Mads De Jong.