History was made in the Victorian Parliament on 10 October, 2008 when, late in the evening, the Legislative Council passed the Abortion Law Reform Bill.
In removing abortion from the Crimes Act, the Parliament did what no other Victorian Parliament has done: it told its female citizens that it trusts them with the decision to mother. The timing was perfect, occurring as it did during the centenary of white women’s suffrage in Victoria.
For more than 150 years, the burden of risk of criminal sanctions had been allowed to lie with pregnant women, and the doctors and nurses who delivered their medical care. Thirty six years ago my late husband and I shouldered that risk and set up Australia’s first openly operating abortion service. To get there we had to wade through the dark morass of backyard police corruption, political and religious intimidation and social ostracism.
We were shot at, had our house fire-bombed and the steering on our car cut, and were attacked by two men outside our home. My husband had the lease on his clinic withdrawn following pressure from a Catholic bishop on his landlady, and he was bankrupted by the Tax Department for $1500 tax owing. He lost his practice and became a locum. The Medical Board threatened to deregister him and he was ejected from the Australian Medical Association.
Back then, women endured backyard abortions without anaesthetic, where they were humiliated, maimed and sometimes killed. A whole ward of the Royal Women’s Hospital was dedicated to women with sepsis or haemorrhage from illegal abortion and one woman died every week.
We persevered and the clinic we established continues to provide safe reproductive health services to women today. Its staff and the women it serves remain under siege from intimidating and aggressive people looking for an outlet for their private pathologies. The state will now be able to do its duty to protect that clinic — and all other reproductive health services — as it should.
This new law is the result of years of hard work by hundreds of women across the state of Victoria.
For 40 years women’s health and reproductive experts and advocates did the detailed work to understand and make explicit the role of abortion in women’s lives. Once the data was in we turned to the political process. Members of the major political parties developed policies to support legal abortion and had them adopted by their parties. In the ALP a parallel process was begun by former Victorian premier Joan Kirner and other prominent women to increase the representation of women in parliament by creating EMILY’s List, whose members support the principles of equity, diversity, pro-choice, and the provision of equal pay and childcare.
In 2005 the statewide women’s health service Women’s Health Victoria, led by Marilyn Beaumont, put decriminalisation of abortion into its work-plan. Longstanding advocates of decriminalisation came together to establish the Association for the Legal Right to Abortion (ALRA) and began the search for a member of parliament who would introduce a Private Member’s Bill, as had been done in Western Australia.
ALP Member for the Northern Victoria region, Candy Broad, took on the job and in August 2007 introduced her Bill into the Upper House. The Government responded by asking the Victorian Law Reform Commission to provide it with models to reform and modernise legislation relating to abortion, and a commitment to introduce legislation in 2008. All political parties gave their members a conscience vote.
The Bill — which was developed by the Ministers for Health, Daniel Andrews, and Women’s Affairs, Maxine Morand — was simple, well founded and effective. It took abortion out of the Crimes Act and did not put it anywhere else. It resisted all attempts to confound it with special conditions that do not apply to other medical procedures.
In a classic case study of democracy at work, a committed team of community members developed resources to contribute to the debate, met with MPs to encourage them to support the Bill, provided information, parliamentary briefings, press commentary, and helped MPs to hold their nerve in the face of increasingly hostile and threatening opposition to the Bill. MPs’ blackberries were flooded with correspondence and many of them worked diligently to understand the issues and make an informed decision about how to vote.
Mary Woodridge, Shadow Minister for Women’s Affairs, was eloquent in her description of the significance of the Bill for Victorian women. Member for the Eastern Metropolitan region Shaun Leane, who is a former electrician and trade union representative, was determined to speak in support of a Bill that would improve access to reproductive healthcare for his two teenage daughters, and sought advice from ALRA, visited clinics, confronted intimate questions of women’s biology and sexuality, and made an excellent speech in support of the Bill.
Others, such as Greens member Colleen Hartland, spoke of their own experience of abortion, and how that informed their decision to support the Bill.
A number of important issues were flushed out by the debate. These centered on the responsibility and authority of healthcare providers when their conscience clashes with the needs of their patient. The Catholic Church threatened to withdraw from providing reproductive health services and this has started a discussion on the role of faith-based services and universities in providing and training health professionals with the support of state funds.
In a continuation of the old Crusades against the infidel, the Church decided several centuries ago that contraception and abortion were sins. They needed as many Catholics as possible. Most Catholics in Australia no longer pay attention to these teachings and are as likely as non-Catholics to use contraception and abortion. Yet the Catholic Church whipped up a storm of protest against the Bill.
That threat to withdraw medical services might be the impetus to discourage governments from giving service contracts to Catholic hospitals to deliver women’s health services, or to Catholic universities to train health professionals. If they are only prepared to treat people who share their values — and even members of their own faith do not — then they should excuse themselves from state supported health enterprises.
Doctors working in Catholic hospitals opened up discussion of how to balance their conscience with the prescriptions for clinical behaviours by their employers. This question of the interplay of conscience, faith and professionalism is an emerging issue in a multicultural society and extends far beyond the issue of abortion.
Abortion is a common experience for women, and part of the journey of reproductive health which includes menstruation, birth, miscarriage, assisted reproduction, menopause, hysterectomy and gynaecological cancer. All these events require considered decisions and the support of well trained doctors. Abortion is no different.
In my book Lost: illegal abortion stories I document the terrible price our mothers and grandmothers paid for the state’s casual indifference to their need for safe abortion. The state and its representatives are yet to say "sorry" to women for inflicting this pain and suffering.
But perhaps the members of the 56th Parliament of Victoria have redeemed this injury with their clear-headed determination to shift the balance of power in favour of women in this most intimate of areas. In doing so they have recognised that the state cannot command a woman to mother, and that it is a political trick to try to divide women into good and bad, with abortion as the dividing line.
The Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 was a unique opportunity for the state to repair 150 years of neglect and torment of women, and finally put the decision to terminate a pregnancy where it belongs: with women, their families and their doctors. The Brumby Government and the leaders of the Liberal Party and the Greens who supported the Bill will be remembered through history for this act of equality.
The Act is a profound shift in the relationship between the state and its female citizens. It changes both nothing and everything. Nothing, because the number, rate and incidence of abortion will not change. And everything, because for the first time women will be recognised as the authors of our own lives. With that comes our full citizenship.
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