Today the NSW Legislative Council is set to debate what is perhaps one of the most extreme and dangerous laws to face this state and its women.
In NSW, women currently have ready access to abortion with the assistance of a doctor for economic, medical or social reasons to protect their physical or mental health. Women also have the protection of the criminal law when abortion is carried out unlawfully.
Greens’ Mehreen Faruqi claims that her Abortion Law Reform Bill merely brings the law into line with current practice and public perception of what the law already is and should be. In reality however, her Bill is a radical departure from the current law with profound implications for women and the community.
The proposed Bill removes all prohibitions against unlawful abortions and offers no regulation to fill the void this creates. This is out of step with other states and overseas jurisdictions and as noted by Barrister Claire Cantrall during a panel at Parliament House last week, “deprives women of the protection we have enjoyed for over a century.”
The Bill allows abortions to be carried out by anyone, at any stage of pregnancy, for any reason, including for discriminatory reasons such as sex and disability selection. It removes protections for women against coerced abortion, incompetent and unscrupulous medical practitioners and unqualified backyard abortionists.
The Bill is also contrary to community attitudes as demonstrated by a recent Galaxy poll. According to the Poll, only 16% of people in NSW believe the current law to be too restrictive, 74% oppose late term abortions past 23 weeks, 83% oppose sex selective abortion and 90% believe a woman requesting an abortion should always be seen in person by a qualified doctor.
Strong community opposition to the Bill is also evident in a petition that managed to attract more than 56,000 handwritten signatures in just a couple of weeks, thanks to the efforts of 21 year old university student Rebecca Gosper and a viral Facebook group of volunteers.
In fact, instead of promoting women’s rights and addressing women’s health issues in a positive and proactive way, the Faruqi Bill, overlooks and ignores the very real needs and sufferings of women who have had, or who may be considering, an abortion.
Critically, the Bill makes no attempt to understand and address the societal issues which might make women view abortion as their only choice. These include fear of intimate partner violence, coercion from their partner or others, study and career pressures, and a lack of financial and emotional support.
The recent NRL scandals where the women involved were coerced by their partners and then deeply regretted their abortions, is but one example of the need for more support and safeguards when it comes to abortion. In a brave and moving address at Parliament House last week, this need was echoed by Jaya Taki, one of the women at the centre of the scandals. With an astounding 26% of people in NSW claiming to personally know at least one woman who has been pressured into having an abortion, we should be considering ways to implement better protections for women as a matter of priority, rather than removing the ones that exist under the current law.
Given the pressures and lack of support that often drive women to seek an abortion, as well as the physical and psychological risks inherent in abortion, informed consent provisions are also palpably absent from the Bill. This is despite the fact that the risks of abortion are widely acknowledged and the need for greater protections around informed consent has the overwhelming support of the community.
81% of those surveyed in the Galaxy poll agreed abortion can harm a woman’s physical or mental health, 90% supported independent counselling and 93% believed that prior to having an abortion women should be informed of the risks involved, as well as the support available should they wish to continue with their pregnancy.
Recently in Queensland, politicians refused to support two ill-conceived abortion law reform bills because they, like the Faruqi Bill, contained so many flaws. These included the uncertainty around unforeseen and unintended consequences, the extreme nature of legalising abortion for any reason at any stage of pregnancy, and the dangers the bills posed to women. Both bills fell well short of acceptable law making and after much consideration and two lengthy Parliamentary Committee reports, they failed to pass the Parliament.
The NSW Legislative Council should take into account the Queensland experience, the extreme and flawed nature of the Bill, together with strong community opposition, and reject the Faruqi Bill in the strongest possible terms.
There is much room for improvement in terms of addressing the real needs of women when it comes to abortion, but the Faruqi Bill does not do this. Instead, it removes some of the only crucial protections women have and puts them at risk of further harm.