As many of you will know, earlier this year a 19-year-old woman and her boyfriend were arrested in Cairns for allegedly procuring an abortion by taking the drug misoprostol eight weeks into her unwanted pregnancy. They face jail time of up to seven and three years respectively. It is the first case where a woman has been charged for procuring her own miscarriage in Queensland in over 50 years and harks back to a time when women’s reproductive choices were strictly controlled.
I wrote about this issue for newmatilda.com in July, calling on Queensland Premier Anna Bligh to refer the laws governing the circumstances in which a woman can terminate her pregnancy to the state’s Law Reform Commission. This was done by John Brumby in Victoria last year, after a lengthy campaign by reform advocates, and that state has now abolished common law offences relating to abortion (but left in some provisions relating to unqualified persons performing abortions).
The Bligh Government has now agreed to reform the law after obstetricians at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospitals, and a number of other doctors throughout the state, downed their tools amid the legal ambiguities — forcing women who have pregnancy complications to go interstate for their medical care. The Australian reports today that hospitals in Mackay and Rockhampton have joined the revolt and that more hospitals are set to follow.
At first glance Bligh’s actions sound like a step forward. However, the Bligh Government has only gone so far as to clarify that medical abortion — or taking drugs to procure a miscarriage — is allowed where a woman’s physical or mental health is at stake. This is a clarification of the existing law which states that only surgical abortion is allowed in these circumstances.
"We are not looking at changing the law in any way that makes abortion more or less available in Queensland," Deputy Premier and Health Minister Paul Lucas told The Australian.
According to Dr Caroline De Costa, an obstetrician who stopped performing medical abortions for her patients after the Cairns couple were arrested, the Bligh Government’s reform proposal doesn’t go far enough and she would like to see qualified medical practitioners exempted from the laws surrounding abortion in Queensland.
"It is possible to find a solution without complete decriminalisation, if the Government shirks from the latter," she said. "Adding the words ‘excepting a registered medical practitioner’ to sections 224 and 226 of the Criminal Code would mean that doctors would be exempt from prosecution for abortion."
Recently I spoke to an 87-year-old woman about her experience of trying to get an abortion in the 1960s, when Australian society was on the cusp of reform in regards to women’s reproductive rights.
Vicky Potempa was 44 when she had to be declared insane to obtain the procedure and even then it was fraught with difficulty. Potempa attempted suicide — with the intent of being declared mentally unfit to have a child — and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The doctors said they would keep her there until she had the baby which would then be given up for adoption. Already with two children, a sick father who she was the primary caregiver for and a drunk husband at home, she was adamant that she be allowed to terminate the pregnancy.
She eventually wrangled herself a referral to Crown Street Women’s Hospital who performed the abortion on the proviso she also be sterilised. Vicky didn’t realise that involved a hysterectomy and woke up from the surgery with her reproductive organs gone.
Vicky Potempa’s story seems unthinkable in this day and age. And of course it’s true that, nowadays, she would be able to obtain an abortion relatively easily.
The problem is that with abortion still in the criminal code in NSW and Queensland, women who want to terminate a pregnancy in future may find it just as difficult as she did in the mid-60s — and even face prison time — if they are found to have had an abortion outside the legally prescribed set of circumstances.
The young couple on trial in Cairns are proof that times haven’t changed quite as much as we like to think they have.
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