New NT abortion law an important step forward for women’s health but further reform needed

The Human Rights Law Centre welcomes the passing of the Termination of Pregnancy Law Reform Bill in the Northern Territory Parliament last night but has urged the Northern Territory Government to fully decriminalise abortion and respect women as competent decision makers.

The new law improves access to abortion, allows access to the “abortion pill” outside hospital settings and protects women against harassment and intimidation from anti-abortionists.

Adrianne Walters, Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said, “We commend Attorney-General Natasha Fyles, for her leadership in pushing these vital reforms through the NT Parliament. However, the new law does not give women decision making power, even in the very early stages of pregnancy. It also fails to fully decriminalise abortion. The Attorney-General has committed to reviewing the laws in 12 to 24 months. These serious shortcomings should be addressed now.”

Ms Walters welcomed the removal of the sections of the Criminal Code that make abortion a criminal offence. However, the section that criminalises the destruction of an unborn foetus remains in the Criminal Code, and abortion after 23 weeks is only available to save a woman’s life. This leaves open the possibility of a woman or doctor being prosecuted for a later term abortion performed with a woman’s consent.

“Unfortunately, as it stands, Territory women still run the risk of criminal prosecution for later term abortions. This is simply unacceptable and carries with it cruel consequences. For example, a woman 24 weeks pregnant whose foetus has a fatal abnormality would have no choice in the Territory but to carry the pregnancy to term. The same for women pregnant as a result of rape,” said Ms Walters.

“Using the criminal law as a tool to regulate abortion at any stage of a woman’s pregnancy is hopelessly outdated, discriminatory and bad for women’s health. The foetus destruction offence must be repealed. Of course, those who harm a foetus without a woman’s consent should be punished but the law can be adapted to that specific purpose, like Victoria did in 2008,” said Ms Walters.

“While the Attorney-General has agreed to review these laws in the future, these are changes that can and should be made now to ensure that women in desperate circumstances are not forced to travel interstate or risk criminal prosecution,” said Ms Walters.

The new law also requires the approval of two doctors for pregnancies between 14 and 23 weeks duration.

“Requiring women to seek the approval of two doctors does not reflect medical necessity, and only makes it harder for vulnerable women to seek the healthcare they need. It tells women they can’t be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies. This unnecessary and paternalistic requirement should be removed,” said Ms Walters.

For media inquiries:

Adrianne Walters, Director of Legal Advocacy, Human Rights Law Centre:  0432 049 383

Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre: 0419 100 519