Our Role In The Fight For Safe Abortion


For the past two decades, women’s groups in Latin America have mobilised around 28 September — a date that commemorates the abolition of slavery in Brazil — to call on governments to act to make abortion safe, legal and accessible. The day of action has now gone international, as the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights brings us the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion 2013.

Every year around the world 68,000 women die as a result of an unsafe abortion. Millions more suffer complications that often lead to permanent disability. The World Health Organisation calls this a global “preventable pandemic.”

Restricting access to abortion (which the WHO notes is one of the safest procedures in contemporary medicine, when carried out by medical professionals) only leads to an increase in unsafe abortions. So supporting the global day of action for the sake of these women seems like a no-brainer.

Some public commentators and politicians disagree, and call abortion a political red herring. For those who agree, it’s not obvious why supporting the global day of action is important. Isn’t abortion a done deal these days for us citizens of the first world? Aren’t Australian women having too many abortions? In fact, aren’t we "aborting ourselves out of existence"?

If you’ve found yourself asking these questions, then I’ve got news for you. The fact is, we absolutely do need to safeguard women’s reproductive rights in Australia.

Australians are not “aborting themselves out of existence”.

If you’ve been lying awake at night haunted by visions of empty playgrounds, you can relax because Danna Vale — a Liberal backbencher during the Howard government — has been proven wrong since she made this claim in 2006.

We do not have access to accurate data on how many abortions are performed in Australia each year, but current estimates suggest that it is very far below the rate of population renewal. In fact, by these estimates abortion rates in Australia are very moderate when compared with international levels.

Vale’s ridiculous comment seemed to imply that women are having abortions whenever they feel like it, perhaps in the same way as they might impulsively splash out on a new pair of heels.

That’s not true. Over half of all women who have had an abortion in Australia were using at least one form of contraception when they became pregnant. As for the rest, we know that sexual coercion and rape comprise a not insignificant number of cases. Women have abortions for a range of complex reasons and it is our right to make important decisions about our lives, our families, and our bodies.

Australian women are not guaranteed access to safe and legal abortion.

Abortion is regulated by criminal law in all Australian states and territories, except for the ACT. What this means is that if you procure or provide an abortion in any place other than the ACT, in certain instances you may have been breaking the law and you could be prosecuted.

NSW and Queensland have the strictest abortion laws: in these two states, abortion is only legal when a doctor believes that a woman’s physical and/or mental health is at serious risk (although in NSW social, economic and medical factors may also be taken into account). Other states and territories have a variety of restrictions and provisions around abortion.

This often puts women in highly traumatic, life-threatening situations. In an article on a website run by the Human Rights Law Centre, Kate Marsh writes that she has heard from “doctors, social workers, and women themselves about cases where women have been denied abortion in horrific circumstances”.

These include victims of rape being refused abortions in public hospitals, and needing to source thousands of dollars to procure an abortion from a private clinic; women whose foetuses have died in utero being sent home from Catholic hospitals to wait for miscarriage; and women whose foetuses were diagnosed with severe anomalies being forced to carry the foetus, even though it was certain that the child would be a stillbirth. This is happening in Australia. Not much — but once is too often.

Women’s reproductive rights in Australia are under further threat.

Zoe’s Law 2, is a bill being introduced into the NSW Parliament that seeks to grant legal personhood to foetuses over 20 weeks old or weighing more than 400 grams, in the context of certain criminal acts. NSW parliamentarians who support the bill tell us that Zoe’s Law 2 is not about abortion — it’s about finding a way to legally recognise a tragic loss of the kind Brodie Donegan had to suffer.

With respect, I disagree. Reviews have found that existing laws are adequate, and given that we know that “legal personhood” is a concept that is easily manipulated by anti-abortion activists, it seems to me to be really important that we make a stand against a bill that could have devastating implications.

We now have a Prime Minister who is not a safe bet in favour of women’s reproductive rights.

As Leslie Cannold has pointed out, we need to be worried about what an Abbott government will do to the already precarious legal status of abortion in Australia — given that, “as health minister, Tony Abbott, with the active political support of a number of the men who are [in]positions of power in the [Coalition] government, persistently agitated to restrict women’s access to abortion, to stigmatise the procedure and to shame the women and healthcare workers involved in it.” This is neither fearmongering nor "a matter for the states".

Access to safe and legal abortion is a human right.

In a world where pregnancy is the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19, we need to stand behind the human rights instruments which affirm that access to safe and legal abortion is a woman’s entitlement. It is absolutely vital to safeguarding her health and her rights as an embodied person.

It’s not good enough that a life-saving, evidence-based, rights-protected procedure like abortion is still entangled with criminal law in Australia. It’s not good enough that abortion is still not accessible to all women across our country.

Spread the word, señoritas. We want safe, legal and accessible abortion. Right here, right now. Get involved in the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion 2013.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.