New South Wales has finally decriminalised abortion, more than a century after it was included in the state’s criminal code, and well after most of the other jurisdictions around the country have already done so.
But the passing of the Abortion Law Reform Bill has not been without vigorous debate, criticism, posturing, controversy and strong division within NSW parliament as well as in the wider community.
The historic NSW bill, which finally passed last week, was modelled off the Queensland bill which passed last year. Significantly, the New South Wales legislation aims to remove abortion from the Crimes Act, and define it as a medical procedure in its own right.
Key points of the Abortion Law Reform bill
- The new law allows women to access an abortion in the first 22 weeks of pregnancy and also includes a provision that terminations beyond 22 weeks are permissible if approved by two doctors.
- The legislation also decrees that all terminations after 22 weeks will now have to be performed in a public hospital.
- It makes it a crime for those who assist in terminations who are not authorised to do so, attracting a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment.
- It also makes it a crime to coerce another person to prevent or force them to have an abortion – and this is punishable by up to two years in prison.
- It bans sex-selective abortions.
- It includes provisions for any doctor who has a conscientious objection to providing an abortion to refer the patient to the NSW Health hotline or website to find alternative care.
Abortion will no longer be a crime
According to NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) since 1994, twelve people have been prosecuted in NSW for abortion offences. Of these, four were subsequently found guilty and non-custodial orders were imposed.
In fact, just two years ago, a Sydney woman was convicted of attempting to terminate her own pregnancy by taking pills she brought off the internet.
Magistrate Geoffrey Hiatt of Blacktown Local Court, found that she had “clear intent to procure a miscarriage,” which was then a crime under section 82 of the Crimes Act.
‘Her body, her choice’
Despite the fact that this is the 21st Century, and that for many decades, ‘pro-choicers’ have fought hard for social and legal recognition of the fact that the decision to abort should ultimately lie with the mother-to-be, the proposed New South Wales legislation sparked fierce protest. Even this last piece of legislation spent eight weeks in Parliament before being successfully passed.
But for women everywhere, the law reform is seen as a vital step forward for women’s rights – one that is long overdue. For medical professionals, it’s also important that the stigma and uncertain legal implications of performing an abortion have been removed and that New South Wales steps into line with the rest of Australia.
‘It’s about time’
New South Wales has debated decriminalising abortion a number of times in the past few years and it is the last State in Australia to actually do so.
In 2018, The NSW government has passed laws to impose 150-metre ‘safe access zones’ around abortion clinics, making it an offence to harass anyone entering or exiting an abortion clinic, now it has also ensured that the laws stop women seeking abortions from being prosecuted as criminals.
Most importantly it has provided the legal framework for easy, straight forward and safe access to appropriate health services for women need should they need to seek a termination.
Members of Parliament were granted a conscience vote on the bill, but it finally passed with a convincing majority of 59 in favour and 31 against.
Ironically, the passing of the legislation comes as the most recent numbers released suggest that the rate of abortion is in decline in Australia. Reports suggest that over the past 10-15 years the rate of abortions has significantly declined across the nation a fact that is mostly attributed to effective contraception and education.