Queensland MPs must seize the moment on abortion

Queensland MPs must seize the moment on abortion

This piece was first published in the The Brisbane Times

Queensland MPs stand at a crossroads when it comes to the state's abortion laws, but one thing is abundantly clear: the status quo is unacceptable. New polling released this week shows overwhelming public support for women's right to choose abortion in Queensland and that voters are turned off by MPs who support criminalising abortion.

Queensland's MPs currently have a unique opportunity to modernise the state's abortion laws. This law reform is vital because the crime of abortion remains in Queensland's Criminal Code, right in between "incest" and "indecent acts". Under the Code, women and doctors risk 7 to 14 years imprisonment for procuring an abortion.

Two bills currently before Parliament, introduced by Independent MP Rob Pyne, would remove abortion from the Criminal Code and require two doctors to agree on the need for abortions performed after 24 weeks' gestation. The bills also provide for "safe zones" around abortion facilities to protect patients' safety and privacy and confirm the right of doctors to conscientiously object.

On Friday, a bipartisan Queensland parliamentary committee released its report on the second of the two bills. Disappointingly, the committee failed to reach agreement or make a recommendation on whether the second bill be passed or not.

Despite the confusion arising from the report, the choice before MPs is actually very simple. On the one hand, MPs can retain laws that reflect nineteenth century views about women and sex. Alternatively, they can bring Queensland's laws in line with contemporary values and widely accepted clinical practice.

The Essential Research poll of more than 1200 Queensland people, shows more than 80 per cent think that it should be legal for a woman, in consultation with a medical professional, to decide to terminate her pregnancy. Seventy-five per cent believe abortion should no longer be a criminal offence.

Interestingly, 60 per cent said they would be less likely to vote for an MP who supported criminalisation of abortion.

The community view is supported by professionals steeped in knowledge and experience of women's health. A 2010 survey published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that 85 per cent of practicing obstetricians and gynecologists are not opposed to abortion. Peak bodies for O&Gs, doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists and public health practitioners have been vocally supportive of decriminalisation throughout parliamentary inquiries into these two bills.

Needless to say, the law reform is long overdue. Queensland's abortion laws were passed two centuries ago, in 1899. Queensland lags behind most other Australian jurisdictions (except NSW), which have already decriminalised abortion, either wholly or in part.

Unsurprisingly, Queensland law has failed to keep up with the changing face of medical practice and women's lives. The fact is that abortion is a safe medical procedure that is provided every week in Queensland and across Australia.

The risk of criminal prosecution isn't just theoretical. As recently as 2009, a Cairns couple were charged with procuring an abortion and supplying drugs to procure an abortion. Thankfully, after a trial that ran for three days, a jury took less than an hour to find the couple not guilty of the charges.

In 2016, a 12-year-old girl was compelled to go before the Supreme Court of Queensland to obtain approval for an abortion, despite it being blindingly obvious to all involved, including the girl, her parents, and all the specialists involved, that an abortion was in the girl's best interests.

The decision only intensifies the urgency for law reform. Young girls in this predicament aren't assisted by the publicity and stress of court proceedings. They need privacy, expert medical care and the support of their loved ones.

By removing the criminal offence of abortion from its statute books, Queensland can begin to dismantle unnecessary barriers to lawful terminations and the stigma around an essential women's health service.

Yet this historic and urgent reform is at risk of being scuttled for procedural reasons. One of the arguments against the bills, which will be debated together but voted upon separately, is that legal uncertainty could be created if one bill passes without the other.

This argument conveniently ignores the legal uncertainty that already exists. The Australian Medical Association Queensland has stated that the current abortion laws are unclear, do not provide certainty for doctors or women, and create "barriers to a doctor's first duty – best patient care."

Queensland MPs have a rare opportunity to move forward in a way that respects women as decision makers and ensures their reproductive freedom. Happily for them, the new polling shows that to act in this way would also be popular in their electorate. It is up to the Queensland government to throw its support behind reform, either through supporting Mr Pyne's bills or by putting forward its own.

Emily Howie is the Director of Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.

Kate Marsh is a spokesperson for Pro Choice Queensland