Women's rights campaigners demand abortion is decriminalised. Photo: Lydia Smithers

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By WENDY BACON

This week I joined more than sixty other women on #ArrestUs in support of a bill to decriminalise abortion in NSW. All of the signatories have had one or more abortions in NSW.

This statement is part of a much broader campaign led by a Pro-Choice coalition of sixty organisations including Family Planning NSW, the Women’s Electoral Lobby and Domestic Violence NSW. The bill has the support of the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.  More than 70% of NSW citizens do not believe that abortion should be an offence under the Crimes Act, which it is has been for 117 years. The bill is sponsored by a record-breaking fifteen MPs, including Liberal, National, Green, Animal Justice and Independent MPs.

The #ArrestUs statement was organised by a new generation of feminists including union organiser Emily Mayo. It harks back to earlier public advertisements in the 1970s in which women publicly stated that they had undergone abortions. Those of us who signed statements back then did so as an open challenge to the inclusion of abortion in the NSW Crimes Act. We took our actions in the face of a massive police crackdown that forced limited safe abortion services to shut down or go underground.

Thousands of women met in town halls, marched and rallied for abortion reform in those years. We did not imagine then that more than forty years later, we would still be campaigning while all other states have legislated reforms. In the mid-1970s we set about making women’s rights a practical reality by setting up women’s health centres and safe abortion services. We optimistically hoped that comprehensive women’s reproductive health services would have come to be seen as a right many years ago. No longer would the health of women be held hostage by reactionary religious interest groups that have spread hate, ignorance and fear in the community this week.

Safe and affordable

The current bill was moved by the Independent MP for Sydney Alex Greenwich. It removes abortion from the NSW Crimes Act and replaces it with a clear framework in which health professionals can provide abortions safely and affordably to any woman. It grants doctors the right to object conscientiously to providing abortion services themselves but requires that they will nevertheless provide information about available services to a woman. This clause attempts to ensure that no woman is abandoned in a cone of silence that denies her access to services.

I signed #ArrestUs in solidarity with all those who over decades have worked for or suffered from the criminalisation of abortion. The signatories include women across the decades from the early 1960s – when Pro-Choice spokeswoman Wendy McCarthy had an abortion – until very recently. They include Eurydice Aroney who had an abortion in 1981 and has a deep personal connection with the issue because her grandmother died in a backyard abortion in 1942 when her mother was only eight. She and Sharon Davis produced an award-winning documentary Edna Lavilla that reminds us of how the silence, shame and stigma around abortion could ripple across the generations.

A woman’s access to abortion has until now depended on her wealth, class or race or where she lives. Ample testimony has already been provided in the current parliamentary debate that this is still the case in NSW. “There is great inequity to access … and we should not accept that there are two systems of health care: one for the bush and one for the cities”, the Leader of the Opposition Jodi McKay told parliament.

My own abortions occurred in the 1970s. They ranged from safe to unsafe and frightening. I wrote about these in a City Hub story before the March 2019 election, because I knew that abortion reform was on the agenda.

In 2016, after more than 100 years, Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi, then the first Muslim woman to sit in any Australian parliament, moved to remove abortion from the Crimes Act, where a parliament of all white men had put it in the first years of the twentieth century.  She spoke about her intention to do this in 2015.  Although her bill failed on that occasion, a giant coalition of women’s health, legal and social justice organisations formed to campaign for reform. Both Alex Greenwich and the NSW Greens committed during the 2019 election campaign to move fresh bills.

This background shows how outrageous it is for NSW politicians to complain that they have not been consulted or given enough warning of this bill. They should be ashamed to say that they need more time to think through their stance on abortion. As the Liberal Member for Heathcote Lee Evans told parliament this week, it is “outrageous” and “false” for MPs to say they or their communities have not been consulted. Describing the bill as a “very very sensible bill’, he had the grace to say that it was quite “disturbing to me that as a white middle-aged Caucasian man to be standing here making decisions about what younger women like my granddaughter should do.” Evans suggested to his colleagues that before accusing Greenwich of not consulting, they should “do their homework”.

Stigma and silence

So long as abortion is in the Crimes Act, stigma and silence will surround it. As Greens MP Jenny Leong told parliament this week, women still do not speak openly of abortion. It was for this reason that she shared her story with SBS this week and had the honesty to acknowledge that her experiences decades later in the latter stages of her daughter’s birth were more challenging than the abortion. At 20, she was lucky enough to be in the UK where abortion was decriminalised many years ago. She has campaigned for decades for abortion reform because she knows that the support she received is not mirrored in NSW today where we can be sure women will go to bed agonising over where they can get the money for an abortion or even get to a clinic; or how they can scape hundreds of dollars together to travel interstate to end a pregnancy that they fear will trap them and their children in a violent partnership.

The patriarchs at the head of religious institutions, led by Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher, mobilised last week to defend the proposition that abortion is a crime. In a letter, he warned parents and religious followers that the bill allows termination up to the day before birth. This is false and deliberately misleading because, as Archbishop Fisher knows, after twenty-two weeks abortions are only ever done for serious reasons by teams of doctors. These comprise less than 1% of all abortions. This will not change. The Archbishop was corrected by ex-NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nick Cowdery, but by then the falsehood had been broadcast by opponents of the bill.

Archbishop Fisher leads the same institution that for years actively sought to deny young women the opportunity for terminations, forcing them to deliver babies that were in some cases were forcibly removed for adoption. This practice was built on the criminalisation of abortion and shame, leaving a burden of grief in its trail.

Fortunately, the Uniting Church showed a different sort of religious leadership this week. In an open letter to MPs, the Uniting Church reverend Simon Hansford argued abortion was a health and social issue and should not be a criminal issue. Newcastle Bishop Peter Stuart has also broken with Fisher, encouraging members of parliament to “support the overarching proposal” to remove laws governing abortion from the Crimes Act.

Unfortunately, as City Hub goes to press, 17 amendments to the bill have been signalled, including six from Planning Minister Rob Stokes and Attorney General Mark Speakman. These so-called peacemakers are playing mischievous politics with the bill and women’s lives. Most worrying is an amendment that would mean that later-term abortions would need to go before a committee in an approved hospital, rather being considered by two doctors. This suggestion would not only slow down the decision-making process but could be even more distressing and invasive for a woman in the extremely difficult situation of needing to consider terminating a pregnancy. These amendments by Liberal male MPs reveal an arrogant contempt for the medical organisations and doctors who advised on the reform bill.

NSW stands on the cusp of reform. The forces opposing change are doing all in their power to slow and confuse the process. But in a period of understandable pessimism, we need to celebrate the grassroots organising that has brought us to this point. I am sure I join all the other #ArrestUs women in hoping our small act is just one of a thousand acts that will push us over the line.

Update

While the bill is still being debated in the Legislative Assembly, it will not be finally considered until at least the last week of August. This is due to a committee established by the NSW Legislative Council that will not report back until August 20.

Today, the Australian Medical Association rejected the amendments to the bill. In a statement, the AMA said, “the unfounded horror stories and attempts by people who oppose it, to make it sound as though it would create a radically different framework are absolutely wrong. The aim of the Bill was always to keep things for doctors and patients as they are now, with the only major difference being that abortion would be free of the stigma of being on the Crimes Act.

The amendments being floated within the Parliament would seek to regulate and control the action of doctors and women and delay treatment for people who need it. These amendments go against the spirit in which the bill was introduced – in fact, they are a perversion of it.”

Wendy Bacon was previously the Professor of Journalism at UTS and donates to the Women’s Electoral Lobby.