Decriminalisation of Abortion

Decriminalisation of Abortion

A Bill to decriminalise abortion is currently before New South Wales parliament.  It is similar in content to that which failed to be passed in Queensland recently.   If the Bill is successful in its current form, abortion will be available on demand until birth. 

Some of the reasons proposed for the need for such law reform include:

  • That abortion is not accessible enough to women in rural and regional areas
  • That doctors are scared to perform abortions because of the risk of prosecution
  • That women are scared to seek abortion because it is illegal
  • That the public overwhelmingly support such reform

I would like to address each of these, and then talk about what this kind of law reform says to those women who suffer psychological harm after abortion.

Abortion was decriminalised in Victoria in 2008, making it available until birth, with the condition that after 24 weeks, two doctors needed to agree that it was necessary.   The process of this agreement does not mean 2 doctors consult with the woman, and such agreement can be made by phone from one doctor to another. 

Since decriminalisation, we have not seen a greater availability of abortion access in any rural or regional area of the State.   Nor have we seen a significant increase in the number of abortions, although this is difficult to determine due to the fact that statistics on abortions prior to 20 weeks are not kept.

The Victorian Consultative Council on Obstetric and Paediatric Mortality and Morbidity is responsible for making the post 20-week pregnancy outcomes available, and they have been extremely slow with the latest figures released in 2016, for the years 2012-2013. 

The only significant differences that we have noted since the changed legislation is that with the AHPRA removal of rights from the one major late-term abortion provider in Victoria, it appears that the number of post 24wk abortions may be less.   From the same clinic, we saw the anaesthetist charged and convicted for infecting more than 50 women with hepatitis C.

We did, however, see a number of abortions performed at very late stages of pregnancy in the years between 2008 and 2011, a significant number after 28 weeks, and one at full term after 37 weeks

This would suggest that decriminalisation has done nothing to make abortion neither more available to women, nor more attractive to doctors.   Of all the women I have provided consultation services to over the last decade and a half, not one has ever been concerned about abortion legality.

The social media commentary on media articles around the Qld decriminalisation also suggests that most women either believe it to be legal and/or know that regardless of legal status, there is never any trouble accessing abortion services.

In fact, apart from scores of comments such as………….

  • It's technically illegal but they are straight forward to get, no referral needed for private clinics.
  • No, they aren't. They are perfectly legal in QLD not sure where you got your information from
  • You can walk into ANY clinic in Queensland that performs this procedure with an appointment and have the procedure done.
  • Yes, it's "technically illegal" however, you do not need a referral, you will not be arrested, you will not be charged with a crime.
  • I had one at a clinic in Southport gold coast, I didn't need a referral and I didn't need to give any reason

 .. the second most common commentary expressed concern about the lack of consent process and follow up care:

  • She was 7 weeks along and it cost her $795. I was also surprised that she wasn't offered any follow up care, counselling etc.
  • I had no trouble at all just booking in, but I was a mess afterward. I seriously thought they should have given me somewhere to go or warned me it might happen.

 Of course, this also suggests that even under the current law, abortions are undertaken for any reason, and women have no difficulty accessing it, and no concerns about legality.

Do the public overwhelmingly support abortion on demand until birth?

In a number of surveys where the general question of ‘do you support a woman’s right to have an abortion?’ it is common for the majority response to be in favour of this right.   However, when people are firstly educated about some of the circumstances that drive women to seek abortion, and secondly, questioned about availability, attitudes change considerably.

This study undertaken by abortion providers affirms that the public are overwhelmingly NOT in favour of abortion on demand until birth and in fact far greater numbers than are represented in other surveys even seek restrictions in early pregnancy.   

 What message do we send suffering women when we seek to decriminalise?

The number of studies demonstrating links between abortion and adverse mental health outcomes is very significant.   It is clear that up to 20% of women will suffer serious, long-term psychological harm following abortion, and that even more women suffer less measurable trauma, loss and grief, which can be debilitating.

Their stories are often silenced; their experiences going unheard in all the noise about ‘women’s rights’ and fear mongering about criminality.   However, their stories are very important and they tell us much about the lack of care and consent in abortion clinics, often leading to rushed decisions in coercive circumstances.

One such woman says:

‘Who protected me from a doctor who basically told me I had no choice but to take that stupid pill?  When I rang and told them I’d changed my mind, they harassed me for days.  It was horrendous. Where’s my legal recourse?  Why would they want to make THAT easier for them to get away with?

And another:

‘You know, this really bothers me.  It is so hard for me to talk about how badly I’ve been affected by having my abortion.  It was way too easy to get.  I had no time to really think about it.  I regret that so much.  It isn’t right already, and now they want to make it worse?  What does that mean for women like me?’

 People who work to highlight the potential harm of abortion have no voice in the current abortion discourse, whether they are researchers and educators like myself, or whether they are the women who have suffered.   It is a dangerous step to continue down a path that ignores a very real and growing community of women, and men who have been harmed by abortion. 

Decriminalising abortion without listening to those are saying the laws and guidelines are already so lax that it hurt me, tells those people they don’t matter.  All this does is pave the way for more harm, more coercion, and less oversight.    None of which can ever be considered to be good news for women.

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