The Victorian government’s decision to legalise abortion rights is a slap in the face for the anti-abortion lobby. After the religious right’s attempts to undermine abortion rights, it is a reminder of the overwhelming majority support for the right to choose.
The Victorian parliament begins debate on reforming the state’s abortion laws on September 9. The proposed legislation, based on Model B of the Victorian Law Reform Commission report, would allow Victorian women to choose an abortion up to 24 weeks into pregnancy.
It would move abortion from the Crimes Act to the Health Act (abortion is still illegal in Victoria, as in most Australian states and territories, and only accessible because of the 1969 Menhennitt court ruling).
But the 24-week time limit will continue to restrict access to abortion. It will introduce a new penalty—up to ten years imprisonment—for health practitioners who perform abortions after 24 weeks if they do not make an assessment that the abortion is “appropriate in all circumstances” and seek the opinion of a second medical practitioner. The factors they are obliged to consider include the viability of the foetus.
As Right to Life and their parliamentary allies begin to mount an offensive in Victoria, the possibility that the bill will be watered down further—either with a lower time limit or compulsory “counseling”, as happened during Western Australian abortion reform in 1998—increases.
Attacking late-term abortions is the religious right’s stalking horse for campaigning to reduce public support for abortion generally. Most recently, Liberal Senator Guy Barnett has announced plans to introduce a bill to ban Medicare funding for late-term abortions. The bill looks unlikely to pass.
Acceptance of the principle that time limits are necessary risks further erosion of access. Less than 1 per cent of abortions occur after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Late term abortions often involve circumstances where the pregnancy has been hidden or unknown because of age, rape, and/or incest, where distance or other financial pressures made access to health services impossible, or where foetal death or abnormality is discovered.
History shows that illegality doesn’t stop women from accessing abortions—but it makes the service they do access unsafe and in some cases, lethal. The right to late-term abortion needs to be defended—abortion must be freely accessible as early as possible and as late as necessary.
Successful pressure on the Brumby Labor government to bring about meaningful change requires more than sending letters to local parliamentarians thanking them for introducing the reform, as has been the strategy of the main campaign lobby group, Pro Choice Victoria.
Abortion access in Victoria was won by an uncompromising campaign of public pressure on the government. A survey reported in The Age showed majority support for access to late term abortion.
We need to bring this majority onto the streets in opposition to any restrictions on abortion laws. The September 6 rally in Melbourne and the solidarity actions in other states are the first attempt to do this, and this kind of pressure needs to continue.
By Amy Thomas