A Bill to legalise abortion was last week defeated in NSW Parliament. Credit: Anita Senaratna

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Abortion will remain a criminal offence in NSW, after Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi’s Abortion Law Reform Bill was defeated 25 to 14 in the NSW Parliament’s upper house last Thursday. The bill aimed to remove offences relating to abortion from the Crimes Act, introduce 150-metre ‘protest exclusion zones’ around abortion clinics and would also require doctors with a ‘conscientious objection’ to abortion to refer women to other providers who do not have any objections.

On the day of the debate, there were protesters from GetUp outside Parliament House as well as counter-protests by anti-abortion groups such as Abortion Rethink. The public gallery was packed with activists from both sides of the abortion debate, and the result of the vote was met with a combination of cheering and cries of “shame”.

Abortion is now legal in every Australian state except NSW and Queensland, where a similar bill introduced by independent MP Rob Ryne was withdrawn from parliament following a lack of sufficient support.

Currently, Division 12 of the Crimes Act classifies “attempts to procure abortion” as an offence. However, there are legal loopholes that allow medical providers to perform abortions in cases where they believe it would be a danger to the woman’s physical and mental health to continue. Over the years, this definition has been broadened to allow doctors to consider factors such as socio-economic circumstances.

Dr. Suzanne Belton, an anthropologist and midwife who was part of the recent successful campaign to decriminalise abortion in the Northern Territory, says that she finds it “odd” that women have to exaggerate their mental state to obtain an essential medical procedure.
“It’s a very curious law, it’s a law from basically the 1960s, isn’t it?” she said.

“Women had to make these very tenuous arguments saying they were all going to commit suicide if they didn’t get an an abortion…I think we’ve moved on from there and that isn’t the case in the other reformed states, and it does put doctors in the very strange position of having to spuriously build up the case that women are psychiatrically unwell and requiring an abortion. I personally find that an odd argument for 2017.

“If they were going to have brain surgery, plastic surgery, knee replacements, a woman is considered perfectly capable of going to a health provider, finding out the information and if her and the doctor agree that the procedure is warranted in a medical way then it is done. It’s nobody else’s business,” she said.

During the bill’s debate, Labor MP John Graham observed that the current legal status of abortion would come as a surprise to many NSW residents for this reason.

“I believe that when we vote on this bill, it will represent a start to this debate in New South Wales, not the end of this debate,” he said.

“I believe this bill is likely to be short of a majority, however, it will represent a start to the debate because a reassertion by this House that abortion is a crime will come as a surprise to many citizens of New South Wales.”

Dr Faruqi told City Hub that this isn’t the end for abortion law reform in NSW, and that she will continue to push for abortion to be decriminalised through her #End12 campaign.