Women who made abortion legal in Australia say now is the time to pursue reform
Architects of Australia’s first law to decriminalize abortion say the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US was a huge setback for reproductive rights, and that more changes are needed in the country to better dedicate access.
- In 1998, WA became the first Australian jurisdiction to decriminalize abortion
- The women behind this landmark reform say the state is now lagging behind
- They say young women must take over after Roe v Wade
Western Australia was the first place in the country to remove most criminal penalties for pregnant patients seeking the procedure and doctors providing it, in 1998.
Cheryl Davenport, who introduced the bill in WA’s upper house, sought to strike out sections of the criminal code that allowed doctors to be jailed for 14 years and patients for up to seven years.
Ms Davenport said the overthrow of Roe v Wade in the US was a terrible development.
“I just felt like we went back 50 years,” she said.
The changes she led to WA nearly 25 years ago were sparked by two doctors charged under the law.
She said at the time concessions had to be made to get the numbers out of parliament and now WA’s laws were lagging behind the rest of the country.
Under Western Australian law, a patient seeking an abortion must be counseled on the medical risk of pregnancy termination and pregnancy by a second doctor who does not perform the procedure.
However, abortion is widely accepted by medical authorities as being safer than carrying a pregnancy to term.
In all other Australian jurisdictions, only one doctor is required, but a second is brought in for abortions after a certain number of weeks.
Additionally, in WA, beyond 20 weeks, two members of a specially appointed six-physician ethics committee must agree that the fetus or mother has a “serious medical condition” that warrants the procedure.
By law, a procedure beyond 20 weeks can only be performed at King Edwards Memorial Hospital.
Children under 16 cannot access an abortion unless a custodial parent has been informed and given the opportunity to participate in the counseling process.
Former Labor MP Diana Warnock, who led the landmark 1998 bill through WA’s lower house, was “absolutely horrified” by the US Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade ruling.
“It was a scandal for me and for millions of women around the world, that a panel composed of people openly opposed to abortion because of their religion, could make a decision concerning millions of other people, namely women, and bring them back not just to the 20th century but to the 19th century,” Ms Warnock said.
She also supports changing the laws of WA if young women want to take over.
“Abortion should be a decision for a woman because her body will be affected in the first place,” she said.
“I wonder how men would feel if a panel of six female doctors could make a decision about their private parts.”
WA Health Minister Amber Jade Sanderson said earlier this week the laws were now outdated and the government would consider reform.
“There were a number of concessions made along the way to get this legislation passed [in 1998]and I think they’ve proven that it’s created barriers for women accessing safe abortions,” Ms. Sanderson said.
“We look at a range of women’s health issues, this is one of them.
“The…ethics committee…was created about 20 years ago. It’s probably not a suitable model for current use, and we’re going to look at that.”
But she refrained from saying that changing the law was a priority for the government.
“I think there’s a whole range of work to be done in this area, not everything is legislative,” Ms Sanderson said.
She cited cost and service delivery as two other areas where work was needed.
In WA there are only two service providers and one of them only performs procedures up to 13 weeks.
MPs would be entitled to a vote of conscience
Any abortion law reform cannot be based on party politics, with Labor MPs and Liberal parties having a vote of conscience, allowing government MPs to cross the floor.
In WA, Ms Sanderson should be sure to have her own party’s figures before introducing any amendments.
Last year WA passed safe access legislation that prevents picketers from coming within 150 yards of an abortion clinic or family planning services, but stopped short of reforms wider.
WA Nationals leader Mia Davies has backed a change in the law, but Nationals MPs are entitled to a free vote.
“There are deep convictions when it comes to issues like this,” Ms Davies said.
“But for me, it’s as simple as saying that women are in control of their own bodies.”
Roe v Wade gives hope to Australian Christian lobby
Following the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, Liberal Party conservative eminence Nick Goiran told The West Australian he had a “steadfast pro-life” stance.
There is also resistance outside parliament.
Former senior Liberal MP and now director of the Australian Christian Lobby WA, Peter Abetz, said the Roe v Wade ruling had been viewed very positively by groups in Australia.
“I guess it gives an element of hope that change is possible,” Abetz said.
“I think people often forget that the pro-life movement is actually very strong in Australia.”
Mr. Abetz opposes any further liberalization of abortion in WA.
He thinks that it is still too easy to obtain a late abortion even with the ethics committee, but would not like to see it abolished.
“Obviously we would like to see no abortion,” Abetz said.
“Because it’s really ending a baby’s life.”
He also raised concerns that freeing up access to abortion could allow terminations of pregnancies due to a preference for a particular sex of the child.
“In certain ethnic groups in our country, of course, boys are much more sought after than girls,” he said.
“Feminists should really stand up and say this should be banned.”
Mr Abetz, who led an ultimately unsuccessful movement to change WA laws to require women to view 3D ultrasounds before dismissal, wants Australian courts to further restrict access to the procedure.
“At one end of the hospital, we have doctors who use all kinds of medical technology to keep these babies alive, who are born early,” Abetz said.
“And yet, at the other end of the hospital, people are deliberately ending the life of a baby.
“And the poor baby has nothing to say at all.”
Abortion rate down in WA
In Western Australia, the number of registered abortions has remained reasonably stable despite the increase in population.
There were 7,816 induced abortions recorded in 2018, the latest figures released by WA Health.
Among those registered between 2016 and 2018, the youngest to abort was 12 years old, and the oldest 52 years old.
Between 2016 and 2018, approximately 80% of abortions took place during the first nine weeks of pregnancy.
Abortions performed at more than 20 weeks gestation accounted for 1% of the total.