Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019
Today I speak in favour of the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019. This is an historic bill. It is time that women's reproductive health care was treated as a health matter and not a criminal one. Mr Speaker, you will hear me say this again and again throughout my speech: There is no place in the criminal law in this State for abortion. In fact, we are the last State in Australia to have abortion unamended in the criminal code. This bill seeks to rectify this antiquated approach to abortion, removing these archaic provisions from the Crimes Act and establishing a statutory system for medical supervision for abortions in this State.
Currently the Crimes Act still makes it a criminal offence to procure an unlawful abortion. Women can and have been prosecuted for procuring an abortion. Many would be surprised to learn that as recently as 2017 a Sydney woman was prosecuted for self‑inducing an abortion. In fact, many in our community are unaware that abortion remains in the Crimes Act. These laws are out of step with public perception and expectations and out of step with people's experiences of both the law and our healthcare system. In fact, 76 per cent of people in New South Wales are unaware that abortion still remains in the Crimes Act and research has shown us that 73 per cent of people in New South Wales actually support the decriminalisation of abortion and regulating it via our healthcare system.
We must change the law on reproductive rights as there is no place in the criminal law in this State for abortion. The co‑sponsors of this bill across this place and the other place are most certainly evidence of that. Behind these co‑sponsors in their parties are women and men who also support this vital change to the law. I would particularly like to acknowledge these co‑sponsors, including of course the proposer of the bill, Alex Greenwich—Trish Doyle, Ryan Park, Penny Sharpe, Jo Haylen, Jenny Aitchison, Shelley Hancock, Brad Hazzard, Jenny Leong, Leslie William, Trevor Khan, Abigail Boyd, Felicity Wilson, Emma Hurst and Greg Piper. Never before have we seen such support for a bill, which symbolises the importance of this legislation before us today. I am so proud of each and every one of them and proud to be in this Parliament with them.
The Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019 makes the law clear on abortion and the reproductive rights of women. Specifically it enables a termination of a pregnancy to be performed by a medical practitioner on a person who is not more than 22 weeks pregnant; enables a termination of a pregnancy to be performed by a medical practitioner on a person who is more than 22 weeks pregnant in certain circumstances; identifies certain registered health practitioners who may assist in the performance of a termination; requires a registered health practitioner who has a conscientious objection to the performance of a termination on a person to disclose the objection and refer the person to another practitioner who does not have a conscientious objection; repeals offences relating to abortion in the Crimes Act 1900 and abolishes any common law rules relating to abortion; and, lastly, amends the Crimes Act 1900 to make it an offence for a person who is not a medical practitioner otherwise authorised under the Act to terminate a pregnancy.
I must briefly discuss the rationale behind the specifics of this bill. Firstly, as I have previously mentioned, the bill places reproductive health care, specifically abortions, where they belong—away from our criminal code. Secondly, sections 82, 83 and 84 of the Crimes Act 1900 are rarely prosecuted. SinceR v Wald (1971) a medical practitioner may perform a termination where, in their honest belief, there is a serious danger to the woman's life or to her physical or mental health. Our courts have broadly interpreted this decision by considering economic, social and medical grounds when determining "serious danger", and the interpretation includes the time both before and after the pregnancy.
Thirdly, this bill provides much-needed clarity for the medical profession on the legality of abortions in this State. While there is only a small number of prosecutions, there is still uncertainty for doctors and other healthcare professionals who provide abortion services. The bill provides certainty about what is lawful and unlawful. Importantly, it provides clarity around late-term abortions. Medical practitioners will now be able to rely conclusively on the statutory requirements as a base-level standard their services must meet. Specifically, clause 5 of the bill allows a medical practitioner to perform a termination on a person who is not more than 22 weeks pregnant. The 22-week threshold was decided upon after much consultation with medical professionals, including the Australian Medical Association and The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. In 2018 the Queensland Law Reform Commission and the associated law reform in Queensland recommended a 22-week threshold because it:
represents the stage immediately before the 'threshold of viability' under current clinical practice;
aligns with the Queensland Health Clinical Services Capability Framework for Public and Licensed Private Health Facilities … pursuant to which terminations from 22 weeks gestation are required to be performed at particular hospitals;
aligns with local facility level approval process adopted at the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital; and
reflects that terminations after 22 weeks involve greater complexity and higher risk to the woman.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists stated in its correspondence with stakeholders on this matter:
The decision as to whether or not to have an abortion, or to continue a pregnancy, is multifactorial and is between a woman and her medical care provider.
In the case of a late-term abortion, it states:
… involvement of two doctors and a multidisciplinary team is desirable, but should not be mandatory, and should not obstruct a woman's right to determine the course of action that she chooses to take. A multidisciplinary team may include, but not be limited to, fetomaternal medicine specialists, neonatologists, geneticists, social workers, psychiatrists or other mental health specialists.
The community women's campaign Our Bodies Our Choices notes that while there are many discussions about late-term abortions, the majority of abortions take place in early pregnancy and it is estimated that no more than 3 per cent of abortions take place after 20 weeks gestation. Currently in New South Wales abortions taking place after 20 weeks usually occur in a hospital setting in consultation with doctors, nurses, fetal medicine specialists, social workers and hospital ethics staff. They are not light decisions; they are considered, made with teams of professionals, and with the women at the centre of that decision-making process. Our medical community is extremely adept at dealing with the complexities of all forms of abortion. The bill simply seeks to remove uncertainty for those medical practitioners.
I pay tribute to the professionalism and commitment of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals across this State to women's health care. We thank them all for their hard work. Contrary to what some would have us believe, the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill does not seek to do anything radical. However, what it seeks to do is remove an antiquated obsolete law that has no place in today's society. Abortion has no place in the Crimes Act 1900. As the Australian Medical Association stated, reported inThe Guardian just last week, the current legislation places women and doctors under a "different and stigmatised legal arrangement to other States". The AMA's statement calls for the clarity this bill provides. The statement inThe Guardian continued:
The bill "reflects the common law entitlements that currently exist, while removing the stigma and legal uncertainty associated with abortion being included in the Crimes Act …"
Currently New South Wales law makes abortion a crime under sections 82, 83 and 84 of division 12 of the Crimes Act 1900. Under that Act the procurement of an abortion can attract a punishment of up to 10 years in prison. It is unfathomable that a woman seeking to access a basic healthcare service and the doctor seeking to provide that service could spend time in prison. In fact, there would be many among us in this House, in the gallery, in this building and in this city who quite easily could have fallen victim to these archaic laws.
Abortion is an accepted form of health care and should no longer be considered a crime. In fact, abortion is enshrined in human rights law. It is a common and completely safe procedure. Many in our State do not even know, as I have said, that abortion is still considered a crime. We are far behind our colleagues in other States on this matter. When we compare the range of services and rights available to women across this country, New South Wales lags behind. Abortion has been decriminalised in Western Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory [ACT] and, most recently, Queensland in 2018. South Australia has partially amended its laws. In those States and Territories abortion is available upon request anywhere from 16 weeks up to 22 weeks, except in the Northern Territory where abortion is available if the doctor is satisfied of certain matters. In those States the conscientious objection of doctors is recognised. In all States and Territories, except the ACT, doctors with a conscientious objection must redirect the woman to an abortion service.
The road to this bill has been a long one. Quite frankly, law reform in this area is long overdue: As the Minister said, 118 years overdue. Our laws on abortion under the Crimes Act are based on a regime in the United Kingdom that is older than a century. That regime was removed by the UK Abortion Act 1967. The UK understood that that law was antiquated and sought to remove it many years ago. Clearly, New South Wales is behind the times. The substantive debate of this bill is not about whether individuals believe abortion is right or wrong. It is a debate about the proposition that abortion is a basic healthcare service for women across our State and not a criminal act, as our laws would have us believe as they stand now. Individuals should have the right to access these services as health care if they choose, and that includes women in regional and rural New South Wales. Many people have gone before me fighting for this day when women may freely choose to access services—a day when abortion is no longer considered a crime in our State; a day when it is considered a basic healthcare service in our community.
I will take some time to thank those women. This morning outside the Parliament's fence, Wendy McCarthy addressed the crowd of hundreds of activists supporting the bill. Undoubtedly we would not be here today without her hard work, activism and legacy. We thank her for that. Wendy's career began as a secondary teacher. However, she became involved in activism when she was newly pregnant. She and her husband joined the Childbirth Education Association, fighting for the right for her husband to be present at the birth of their child. What an idea! She founded the New South Wales branch of the Women's Electoral Lobby and went on to work at the Family Planning Association of New South Wales. Later she became the CEO of the Australian Federation of Family Planning Associations. Wendy McCarthy has spent decades advocating, educating and furthering the fight for fair and equitable access to reproductive health in our State and, indeed, across the country. She is known and loved by many who have come after her, fighting for better rights to reproductive health care. It is only fitting that we recognise her work today in the Parliament.
Wendy is just one of many women who have fought for decades to repeal unfair laws that restrict women's rights to access abortion and stigmatise the provision of safe, legal abortion. We have also had many incredible trailblazers in this Parliament fighting for better rights for women. The Minister quite rightly mentioned Millicent Preston-Stanley. I am a member of the Labor Party and there are many members—women and men—in the Labor Party who also have a proud history in standing up for women's rights. I mention Helen Westwood and Penny Sharpe, who worked together tirelessly to achieve better reproductive rights for women. Some years back Helen was particularly strong in the debate on Zoe's law. Penny has fought in this Parliament for many years for reproductive healthcare rights for women. Most notably, her work on safe access zones for reproductive healthcare clients has meant that women are no longer harassed or intimidated when they are simply trying to access reproductive healthcare services in all their forms. She has a lot to be proud of.
Each debate, fight and bill in the Parliament has brought us that one step closer to this bill. I also thank my other Labor colleagues, including Labor's new shadow Minister for Women and the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence, Trish Doyle; the member for Summer Hill, Jo Haylen; and the former shadow Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Jenny Aitchison, who have all co‑sponsored this bill. This list is not exhaustive and it is always dangerous when you start mentioning names, but I mention some former women members from the Labor Party—Meredith Burgmann, Ann Symonds, Verity Firth and my good friend Carmel Tebbutt. There are so many more, but those women have helped shape the women who are in the Parliament today. We owe an awful lot to them.
I also acknowledge the many groups that have led the charge: Our Bodies Our Choices; NSW Society of Labor Lawyers; Women's Electoral Lobby; the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists; NSW Pro-Choice Alliance; Human Rights Law Centre; Fair Agenda; women's health services, including those in the Illawarra and on the Central Coast; Pro-Choice NSW; Family Planning NSW; Women's Legal Service NSW; Arrest us activists; Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia; NSW Council of Social Service; various nurses and doctors organisations; supportive religious groups, including the Uniting Church; and the activists whom I consider my friends, Claire Pullen, Emily Mayo, Rosie Ryan and many more.
I also mention our supportive communities of faith. Like all communities, people of faith have varying opinions on abortion, as I, a person of faith, have my view, and I speak to my God about that. The Uniting Church has been standing beside us at the rallies outside Parliament House and has provided statements of support for the bill. It has demonstrated that many in our religious communities support the decriminalisation of abortion and the reform of reproductive healthcare laws in New South Wales. I share that view.
The activists and medical professionals have fiercely and strongly supported this bill and others of this nature before the Parliament. They have been here for the long haul for this thankless work. However, we will thank them on behalf of all women across our State. While others outside this place would have you think that this is a controversial bill, it is, in fact, not terribly controversial. In fact, no opinion poll in 50 years in Australia has found a popular majority opposed to broad access to abortion and no opinion poll has found more than 10 per cent of voters opposed to abortion in all or almost all circumstances.
In fact, recent research shows that our community believes that abortions should be lawful either wholly or under some circumstances: 87 per cent believe abortion should be lawful in the first trimester, 69 per cent believe abortion should be lawful in the second trimester and 48 per cent believe abortion should be lawful in the third trimester. The law in New South Wales has not caught up with society, but this week, here in this Parliament, it has the opportunity to do so. I hope that is the outcome. I acknowledge the hundreds of people who joined together outside Parliament House this morning to support the bill. Their support and their advocacy have given many of us in here the strength to keep fighting for reform. It is important that we remember and acknowledge those women who have been personally impacted by the archaic nature of our law. In honour of those women fighting this battle outside this place, I will tell some of their stories in this House because I strongly believe it is their story that we are here to tell today. The shadow Minister for women handed me some of those stories and asked me to read them onto the record. This is the first story:
I'm 47 years old. I have 2 healthy kids. Age 13 and 12. 20 years ago I got pregnant to my husband and father to my children at a time I was struggling with severe mental health issues. I was suicidal and self-harming. For me abortion was the only healthy choice. Adoption was not an option. I was too unwell to safely carry a baby and it would have pushed me over the edge.
I don't regret my choice one bit and know I would not have been a fit mother. Years later when I was well and had babies I still had depression and post-natal depression but I knew I was in a good enough head space to cope with it. If I had had my baby 20 years ago I don't know if I would be here to write this now. It is a choice all women should have.
This is the next story:
I've had two terminations, one at 19 and one at 27, both times I was in no position to be raising a child. At 19, my first boyfriend and I got pregnant whilst 'on a break'. He was with someone else and, when I told him, he decided he did not believe me and he walked out of my life.
My mother took me to the clinic on Macquarie Street and said that, whilst she would support me either way, she was by no means about to raise another child and I'd need to decide if I could do this myself. I could not.
At 27, I was living in Scotland and in a relationship with a lovely man but my visa was expiring and I had to go home. He freaked out and we broke up, I peed on a stick in Hungry Jack's on Princes Street, Edinburgh, told him the result and we held each other and cried.
I flew home, he sent some money and, again, I went to the clinic. I could have a 27 year old and a 21 year old now but I also know my life would have turned out very different had I not had access to a safe procedure.
At 40, I met my husband. We did three rounds of IVF, all unsuccessful but I do not regret my decisions for one second. Please change the law so that women in NSW are kept safe from harm. I accidentally conceived at 35, I'd been married for years, our relationship was strong and happy, we had decent jobs, fair health... abortion isn't supposed to be 'meant' for women like me. But I was childfree before it even had a name.
Unlike any of my friends growing up, I never wanted kids. My family all just thought I'd change my mind. I never did. When I got caught out during changing my contraception it was a no-brainer. That said, it was harder than I thought, even at 4 weeks those hormones were potent! I was sick, exhausted, my boobs hurt so much I showered with a bra on for the week prior to my procedure, and my emotions were all over.
If my partner had wanted it, I might have capitulated. I knew if I let things develop all those maternal feelings would finally develop and I'd be a great parent and (just like every other parent I know) I'd think it was the best thing I've ever done! But I didn't want to be a parent, and thankfully neither did my partner.
So off I went to a local clinic for an abortion at 5 weeks gestation. I had a surgical under an aesthetic and within hours started feeling sane and like I was getting my body back. It's the best thing I've ever done.
I was 19 and off the pill due to side effects and the condom broke. I had only been seeing the guy for a few months and neither of us wanted a child or were in a position emotionally or financially to care for a child.
I chose to have an abortion. It cost me $300 ...
The clinic staff were lovely, luckily no protestors outside that day. I had no shame about what I was doing so probably would have gotten in an argument with them!
In the waiting room I remember a very angry looking father with a very sad looking daughter around my age.
My mum came with me.
I had the procedure then woke up in a big chair in a room with a few ladies who were also finished. We were all wearing colourful sarongs and they gave us a biscuit. The vibe in the room was light and friendly.
After being given the all clear, mum drove me home and I camped on her couch for the rest of the day before going back to my house.
At no stage of my life have I regretted having the abortion. There is NO WAY I would bring a child to term only to give them away and have them feel abandoned. There was NO WAY I would bring a child into what would have certainly ended up as a single parent house and struggled financially for the rest of our lives and had the child deal with poverty and being abandoned by a father who didn't want them. And I didn't want a child. So who knows what kind of mother I would have been.
I'm now 36 and have no kids because I still don't want any and am so grateful for my life, my career, my freedom.
I truly believe this is the best outcome for society.
I have also had friends who have had late term abortions. And NONE of them wanted to. But when you're told your baby you've been hoping and wishing and dreaming of has no brain and has zero chance of survival and when it is born then having an abortion AND GIVING BIRTH AND HAVING A FUNERAL is the only option and it is devastating.
Abortion is enshrined in human rights law. Most people do not know abortion is still a crime in New South Wales, and we know that the vast majority of people in this State support the right to choose. For me, it is simple. There is no place for abortion in the criminal law of New South Wales. Doctors, healthcare practitioners, policymakers, lawyers, activists and many members in this Chamber agree. We are the last remaining State to have these outdated, archaic laws hanging over the heads of women and the medical practitioners who are trying to deliver health care to them. It is time to decriminalise abortion in this State. I urge my colleagues in this place to support the bill. I commend the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019 to the House.