Women’s rights advocates are celebrating after abortion was finally removed from the 119-year-old Crimes Act in NSW.

After months of debate, the Abortion Law Reform Bill (previously the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill) finally passed the Upper House of the NSW Parliament on 25 September.

The passage of the bill, which will allow abortion on demand up to 22 weeks, after which the approval of two doctors is required, is an important step forward for women’s reproductive rights, and could make it easier to access what is one of the most common medical procedures for women.

But while it is ultimately a blow to anti-choice bigots, the bill passed following a series of amendments pushed primarily by the hard right in the Coalition and conservative MPs like Mark Latham from One Nation.

The 25 amendments include replacing the requirement for anti-choice doctors to refer patients to a non-objecting doctor with a requirement to simply provide an information pamphlet; a requirement for doctors to care for a child if it is born alive after an attempted termination; and an ambiguous stipulation that doctors “may ask for advice about the proposed termination from a… hospital advisory committee”.

Despite no evidence of sex-selection abortions in NSW, the health department will also be required to review the rate of sex-selection abortions within 12 months.

While doctors have said the amendments won’t significantly impact the delivery of services, they were clearly intended to stigmatise women who choose to have an abortion and give more discretionary power to anti-choice doctors.

These amendments should never have been passed. With around 80 per cent of people supporting a woman’s right to choose, there was real potential for a mass campaign that could have pushed back the bigots. 

Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s effort to appease the Right in her party by delaying the passage of the bill gave an opportunity for anti-choice conservatives to mobilise. Federal Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, joining forces over the issue with the likes of Tony Abbott and the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, described a woman’s right to choose as a “death penalty for the innocent”, calling it the “slavery debate of our time”.

Unfortunately, the pro-choice campaign relied on a strategy of lobbying to get the bill introduced, instead of setting out to mobilise public support. It was only at the last moment, following large anti-choice protests, that there was an attempt to build a sizeable rally in support of the bill.

The passage of the Abortion Reform Bill in NSW is a step in the right direction. But only mass campaigning can defend abortion rights.

By Caitlin Doyle

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