NT abortion law must respect women as capable decision-makers

NT abortion law must respect women as capable decision-makers

This piece was first published in the NT News

Women in the Northern Territory are being told that they still can’t be trusted to make decisions about their bodies. That’s the message that comes through in a discussion paper released by the Northern Territory Government proposing changes to the Territory’s abortion laws.

With the current strength of numbers in Parliament, the Territory Government should seize the opportunity to modernise the Territory’s outdated abortion laws to promote the health of all women and respect their decision-making capacity. There are good models that can be adapted, in Victoria and the ACT, and in a proposal being considered in Queensland.   

Women seek abortions for many different reasons. She might be a teenager wanting to stay in school, she may already have kids and need to stay in fulltime work, she may be a victim of family violence or she may have been raped.

What women need is support to make their personal decisions, from those who they chose to speak to, and information from professionals about all their options. They need a law that respects their needs and their expertise in making decisions about their body and life. And they need access to affordable and appropriate healthcare.

The Territory’s abortion laws are some of the worst in Australia and women must travel to hospitals in Darwin or Alice Springs. In other places, abortion is decriminalised, women can choose what is right for them and they have more options. Increasingly, it is being understood that restricting women’s choices is bad for women’s health.

Northern Territory law criminalises any abortion performed outside the complicated rules of the medical services law. Even at the early stages of pregnancy a women needs to convince two doctors that she needs an abortion for health reasons or foetal abnormality. Unlike all other medical procedures, it is doctors who have the final say. These rules aren’t based on medical evidence about what is best for women. They confuse and cause fear. They make it harder for doctors to do what is right for their patients.

There is energy for reform and the Government’s proposals would give women some of what they need, including improved access to surgical and medical abortion (“abortion pill”) and protection from harassment and intimidation by protestors when accessing abortion services.

However, the extent that abortion would be decriminalised is unclear. And, nothing has been mentioned about women more than 23 weeks pregnant. Current law only allows abortion to save a woman’s life after 23 weeks gestation. How can we accept forcing a woman pregnant because of rape to keep a pregnancy when she doesn’t want to? Or a woman carrying a foetus that she has been told has a fatal abnormality?

While very rare – 1 to 2 per cent of abortions take place after 20 weeks pregnancy – they often occur because a woman finds herself in a horrible situation. Forcing the continuation of a pregnancy is cruel. Territory women should be able to get the treatment they need in the Territory.

The proposals would also still leave women reliant on doctors – two doctors for pregnancies between 14 and 23 weeks. They would have to have counselling, rather than choosing to. This tells women that they cannot be trusted to make decisions.

In Victoria, abortion up to 24 weeks is a woman’s choice, made after talking to her doctor. Doctors give information, but it is not their role to approve a woman’s decision. We all expect doctors to provide guidance, not to act as gatekeepers to the health services we need. Why does the Government think that Territory women are not capable of deciding what is right for them?

No other medical procedure is as over-regulated or carries the risk of criminal prosecution. The Northern Territory is woefully out of step with modern medical practice and community values.

Restrictive laws don’t stop women having abortions. Instead they mean worse health outcomes, especially for vulnerable women and girls. Those who aren’t eligible, or who are worried about being punished, find other ways. Some women travel interstate if they can afford it. Others will try, in desperation, unsafe ways to end the pregnancy.

The new law must stop criminalising a health service only woman need, and it must respect women as competent decision-makers. It is pregnant women who know what is best for their bodies, families and futures. The law should empower them to make those decisions.

Adrianne Walters is Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre

Robyn Wardle is the Chief Executive Officer of the Family Planning Welfare Association NT