BY WENDY BACON
Hundreds rallied outside NSW Parliament this morning, calling for the decriminalisation of abortion bill to be passed without amendments. But inside parliament, conservative Liberal MP Tanya Davies, Shooters and Fishers’ MLC Robert Borsak and other conservatives were pressuring Premier Gladys Berejiklian to delay the vote on the Bill until September. Before the Legislative Council debate had even begun, the Premier agreed that a vote on the bill would be delayed. This is a major political victory for a minority of conservative religious campaigners. The Premier, who won a narrow election victory for the Coalition, is now looking weak and vulnerable.
Key NSW health and legal peak bodies have urged the NSW Legislative Council to pass the NSW Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill this week without any further amendments.
This includes the Australian Medical Association, the NSW Bar Association, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG), Family Planning NSW, the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties and the Human Rights Centre. Scores of women’s health, legal, and sexual assault services and women’s rights organisations including the Pro-Choice Alliance of 53 groups and the Women’s Electoral Lobby agree.
These organisations made their position clear in evidence provided last week to a NSW Legislative Council Committee inquiry which is expected to table its report in the Legislative Council on Tuesday this week. The final debate will then begin. If a majority of Legislative Councillors follow the advice of the legal and medical professions, abortion will no longer be a crime anywhere in Australia by the end of this week. Abortion will finally be a healthcare issue, a landmark victory for women that will have taken 119 years to achieve.
No more Amendments
Pro-choice reformers preferred the bill as it was originally presented to the Legislative Assembly by Independent MP Alex Greenwich. But they told the Inquiry that they were prepared to accept several amendments that were included in the bill that easily passed the Legislative Assembly with 59 votes in favour and 31 against on August 8th. These include an amendment requiring ‘informed consent’, which health professionals pointed out is part of all ethical medical practice.
But they warned against further amendments that could discriminate against women and undermine the objects of the Bill. This includes a ban on any provision of abortion for the purposes of gender selection. This amendment was rejected by the Legislative Assembly which instead passed an amendment that requires the Minister for Health to report on a review of gender selection abortions in NSW. All major women’s health organisations and leading abortion provider Marie Stopes have argued that there is currently no evidence that such a practice occurs.
However, Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who is under pressure from opponents of the bill in her own party, gave the issue life when she was quoted as saying that she might reconsider this issue.
Australian Medical Association (AMA) Vice President Dr Danielle McMullen told the Inquiry that she considered the discussion around the amendments to be ‘offensive’ because much of it implied that doctors couldn’t do their jobs properly.
The AMA regards the amendments that were passed as ‘unnecessary” in the light of “the strong regulatory framework that already exists to govern the safe and ethical practice of medicine in this country”.
Dr McMullen told the Inquiry that the AMA would “strongly oppose any further amendments” and that an amendments regarding gender selection would “cause great concern” because it would “impede access for women seeking termination for any reason”, would potentially make doctors providing abortions after nine weeks “party to a crime.” and require them to be “mind readers” to ensure that no crime was being committed.
She also cautioned against amendments for compulsory counselling which she and other Inquiry witnesses argued would cause damaging delays for women who have made a decision to have an abortion. She argued that women need supportive care rather than compulsory counselling, which could be experienced as punitive. She said counselling is always available to women seeking abortions.
The focus on amendments is a result of the tactics of the anti-abortion movement. NSW is the last state to decriminalise abortion. The bill’s opponents, who mostly belong to conservative religious organisations, knew from the outset that they were unlikely to have the numbers to keep abortion in the Crimes Act.
So, they focused instead on delay tactics and putting up amendments that health care professionals argue would undermine reform by placing obstacles in the path of women needing access to safe and timely abortions.
The amendment to ban doctors from performing abortions to meet a desire for gender selection was the final amendment to surface in the Legislative Assembly. A prominent opponent of the Bill, Tanya Davies, who represents the electorate of Mulgoa in Western Sydney and was previously the NSW Minister for Women, appeared to have finally run out of steam after hours of debate. Then, just as the final vote on the bill was looming, she handed up two more amendments. One was ruled out of order and the other was about gender selection.In her speech, she referred to the “archaic patriarchal and deadly son preference” that is “carried with immigrants from India and East Asia into western countries.”
Ms Davies referred to a study at Latrobe University which had found some imbalance in sex ratios in Victoria. She then said that this had occurred after Victoria’s abortion law was reformed. She painted images of girl toddlers going missing and men with “patriarchal attitudes” forcing women to abort unborn girls. She asserted without providing any evidence that gender selection abortion was already happening in NSW.
It was left to Greens MP for Newtown Jenny Leong to point out that the Latrobe study had noted that “there can be no conclusions drawn as to whether sex-selective abortions occur.”
“If we are talking about facts, we should talk about the facts, and if we are relying on a study, we should rely on the study,” said Ms Leong. “The same study recommended that the most effective way to address any concern about male-biased ratios was to reinforce social policies that tackle gender discrimination in all its forms. Did it recommend the idea of whipping up concern and raising alarmist and unnecessary amendments to legislation that is designed to reform the law in this State to allow the decriminalisation of abortion? No, it did not,” she argued.
No evidence of gender selection
Ms Leong also told the Legislative Assembly that the World Health Organisation and United Nations agencies found that imposing restrictions or prohibitions on access to health services like abortion for sex-selective reasons is more likely to have harmful impacts on women and “may put their health and lives in jeopardy”.
RANZCOG president and specialist obstetrician Dr Vijay Roach, who has delivered 6000 babies over 20 years, was listening to the debate. Last week Dr Roach told the Legislative Council Committee that he was alarmed by the way Davies and other Liberal MPs were suggesting that we “should concentrate on gender in a way that would end up with racial profiling. Frankly, that is offensive.”
Dr Roach shares Dr McMullen’s concern that any such amendment would “end up precluding people from seeking care. We already know that women, in general, will be anxious about seeking care around abortion because of all the stigma associated with it. To have women who happen to have a certain racial background or religious background walking into a doctor’s office assuming that the doctor may well be questioning them on that basis would be a huge disservice.”
Dr Roach, whose organisation RANZCOG is responsible for women’s health, training specialists and general practitioners, told the Committee that the first principle is that “women have the right to autonomy over their own bodies and that that right should be respected. A woman does not have to justify the choices that she makes about her own body. The second point is that the Australian public trust their doctors. .. You trust us in every single aspect of medical care. The great risk of legislating the way that doctors should consult, should consent, should counsel risks undermining the doctor-patient relationship and the faith that the public has in the medical profession.”
The Medical Director of Family Planning NSW, Dr Deborah Bateson, also told the Committee that “we have no evidence (of gender selection). Any legislation around this would be impossible to put into practice. As a doctor, the thought of having to interrogate a woman about her intentions… to read her mind, will act as a deterrent to doctors providing abortions, it will act as a deterrent to women potentially seeking abortions.”
Medical Director of Marie Stopes Dr Philip Goldstone agreed that further public debate on this issue has the “potential to discriminate against multicultural and diverse communities in Australia and would unfairly target people who already face barriers in accessing abortion care.”
In contrast to these medical experts, the Australian Christian Lobby argued that there is already a trend of what they call “daughter slaughter’ in Australia. They produced no evidence of the practice.
With all the expert evidence before them, it would be an extraordinary step for the Legislative Council to vote for a gender selection ban or any other restrictive amendments. But this will not stop anti-abortion advocates giving it a go.
Committed anti-choice MP Legislative Council Committee member, Labor’s Greg Donnelly, used most of his time for questions in pressing the doctors on whether they would be prepared to accept any more amendments. They continued to push for the bill to be passed at it is without further delay and declined to make any statement about amendments that they hadn’t seen.
One was left with the impression that Donnelly and other MPs opposed to the bill are as much now just playing to their anti-choice constituencies as they are actually hoping to block a historic reform.
Wendy Bacon was previously the Professor of Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney. She has campaigned for the decriminalisation of abortion.