Time to remove another unjust policy

Anne O'Rourke

HISTORY was made in Victoria on 22 October 2008 when, after a long and often acrimonious debate, the Abortion Law Reform Bill became law with convincing votes in both houses of parliament. The Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 (Vic) decriminalises abortion up to 24 weeks. Put simply, this means that there are no laws governing abortion up to 24 weeks.

This brings Victorian law into line with ACT law and the law in Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. After 24 weeks an abortion can only proceed if a doctor ‘reasonably believes that abortion is appropriate in all the circumstances’, and that they have consulted one other medical practitioner who also ‘reasonably believes that abortion is appropriate in all the circumstances’.

The Act also contains provisions relating to health practitioners who hold a conscientious objection to abortion. The Act requires that such practitioners inform the woman of their objection to abortion and refer the woman to another practitioner who does not have a conscientious objection to abortion. However, in the event of an emergency a medical practitioner is under a duty to perform an abortion to save a woman’s life and cannot rely on the conscientious objection to refuse medical treatment.

Achieving law reform in this area was not an easy process. Many politicians were under extreme pressure throughout the debate. Politicians from both parties were inundated with letters and emails, often enduring name-calling and abuse from the public gallery during the parliamentary debate. Liberty Victoria also received a number of emails and letters objecting to its position, the majority basing their objection on religious beliefs.

From the start of the law reform process, Liberty made its position clear. Liberty believes that abortion is not morally objectionable and decisions regarding pregnancy or termination properly belong to the woman or couple involved and should not be dictated by the state or a religious body.

In our submission to the Victorian Law Reform Commission, we stated that our position on this issue starts from a number of core premises. First, that women have the intellectual and moral capacity to make decisions about their own fertility.

Secondly, that the law governing this area should rest upon, and recognise, Australia’s obligations under international human rights instruments, specifically the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Copies of Liberty’s submission can be found on our website.

Despite the reform in Victoria, struggles over the issue of reproductive rights continue and are now on the agenda again at the federal level. The latest battle concerns the ‘global gag rule’, which restricts funding to non-government medical organisations or reproductive health services operating overseas which provide information on contraception and abortion. Every year 78,000 women die from unsafe abortion, the vast majority in developing countries.

This horrendous figure could be significantly reduced by the provision of reproductive health services, but due to amendments introduced by the then Senator Brian Harradine in 1996 such services are refused Australian aid if they give women that information. Some federal politicians have called upon Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to end that prohibition.

Liberty Victoria supports the campaign to eliminate this unjust policy. The Federal Government should follow US President Barack Obama’s lead and end this prohibition which undermines the human rights of women in developing countries.

Anne O’Rourke is a vice-president.