Abortion is still a criminal activity in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Most women are unaware of this and presume that they won the freedom of reproductive choice a long time ago. On 26 September 2007, the Victorian State Government finally made a move to address this disconnect between law and civil life by providing terms of reference to the State’s Law Reform Commission to provide options for decriminalisation.
Since 1998, abortion law reform has been undertaken in WA, the ACT and Tasmania, with decidedly mixed results. If reform goes well in Victoria (with a clear bill responsive to the VLRC recommendations, which puts choice into the hands of women and couples and is passed without too much agony), the remaining two States are likely to follow Victoria’s lead and achieve similar outcomes. If it goes badly, women in both States may continue to suffer restricted access to abortion for many years to come because of antiquated and demeaning laws.
Traditionally, abortion law reform efforts in Australia result from private members’ bills that begin life as simple and sensible bits of legislation designed to repeal the offending sections of their respective Crimes Acts and end up filled with the sort of 2:00am anti-choice amendments that result in precisely the lack of legal clarity that the reform process was meant to address. The VLRC process offers some hope of a legislative outcome that avoids such issues – if the Victorian Government can stand firm and resist anti-choice amendments.
The situation isn’t promising. Although the VLRC handed the report to the Government on 30 March, almost two months later the public has yet to see it. The refusal of any member of the Government – Attorney General Rob Hulls would be the obvious choice – to stand up and champion the cause of Victorian women has seen the issue get pushed to the back of the queue. The most recent blow is the decision to allow a euthanasia bill to be debated first.
The delay in releasing the report, which must be tabled by 11 June, gives ample opportunity for angry pro-life forces to continue haranguing politicians and neighbours – although according to Labor MP Brian Tee in the Herald Sun, the Government thinks that a "coming abortion debate" is "necessary" even though "possibly divisive".
What more debate do we need? The Victorian community has been debating abortion since last September, when the issue was sent to the VLRC, which dutifully took account of more than 500 submissions and 30 community consultations in order to clarify and reflect public sentiment on the matter.
And who will gain from such a debate? It certainly won’t be politicians besieged by pro-life lobbyists waving pamphlets with images of bloody foetuses. It is likely the religious right will use the opportunity to attempt to gain some concessions following previous legislative losses: the Victorian Government has recently granted legal status to same sex relationships, protected therapeutic cloning for medical research and agreed to liberal legislation on assisted-reproductive technology and adoption rights.
Eighty-one per cent of Australians support a woman’s right to choose, and Victoria’s recent legislation indicates that the State is taking a leading role in promoting changes that reflect the will for our laws to enshrine current values of autonomy, equity, choice and access. Australia’s pro-choice majority needs the Victorian Government to stop spruiking their progressive credentials on this issue and start showing them.
The ACT showed incredible leadership by fully legalising abortion and if Victoria does the same then leaders in NSW and Queensland are more likely to demand full decriminalisation in their States as well. But if the bill is allowed to sit and wait until the deadline on 11 June, then released to six weeks of further media brouhaha, the road to legalised abortion in Victoria and throughout Australia could be set back for a long time to come.
So come on, Mr Hulls, stand up for women: let us see the recommendations and get on with the process of reforming the law without further delay.
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