Big win for women's reproductive freedom, but still a long way to go

Big win for women's reproductive freedom, but still a long way to go

This article first appeared in The Age

This week saw a big win for women's rights in Australia in the High Court. It is an historic step forward in the long journey for reproductive freedom for women in Australia. It's also a timely reminder of how far we have to go.

In the 1970s, my nan, as a member of the Women's Electoral Lobby, pushed for the decriminalisation of abortion. She knew what it felt like to discover a pregnancy and be powerless in the face of it, because of the law.

My nan, like the women she volunteered alongside, waited until her 80s to see abortion finally decriminalised in Victoria and her 90s to see the High Court affirm the importance of harassment-free access to abortion.

Women like her got us here.

This week, in a landmark decision, the High Court confirmed that women have the right to access abortion clinics safely, without being accosted and intimidated by strangers. Safe access zone laws, which prohibit harassment outside abortion clinics, are here to stay.

The decision confirms our right to access the healthcare we need without having to forgo our safety, privacy and dignity.

As one High Court judge said, the laws are about making sure women seeking an abortion, and the staff helping them, can do so "in an atmosphere of privacy and dignity".

In Victoria, the laws prohibit a range of behaviours within 150 metres of a clinic, such as filming patients and staff and harassing, obstructing or threatening them. They also prohibit a person communicating in a way that is likely to cause anxiety or distress, which the High Court said is a necessary and reasonable restriction on the constitutionally protected freedom of political communication.

The court's decision does not undermine our right to talk about political matters. What it does make clear is that freedom of speech is not a licence to harm others with impunity.

Competing rights need to be balanced. The right to access healthcare without being psychologically harmed or fearing for your safety and privacy is a fundamental human right.

This week is a week to feel proud about living in Victoria – a state that decriminalised abortion in 2008 and introduced and defended safe access zones.

It is a time to feel proud of the women who came before us, like my nan, and fought for our right to control our own bodies and destinies.

This week is also one to reflect on what remains to be done across Australia.

Astonishingly, in NSW, abortion is still criminalised in archaic laws written in 1900. Despite safe access zones being introduced in 2018, women in NSW face an uphill battle to wrench control of their bodies from a male-dominated parliament.

In the NT, a woman confronted with the devastating news of a fatal foetal condition 24 weeks into her pregnancy has no choice but to travel interstate for an abortion, or risk falling foul of the criminal law. In WA, her fate falls into the hands of six practitioners and is also subject to the criminal law.

In Tasmania, women are being forced to fly to Victoria to access surgical abortions because their government is failing to provide this safe medical procedure.

In WA and SA, for the past 37 days, extreme anti-choice activists have parked themselves outside clinics. In WA, they have stopped cars, stuffed rosary beads, baby booties and medically misleading pamphlets through car windows. They have yelled at staff and women and called them murderers.

Only WA and SA have failed to put in place sensible safe access zone laws.

The WA government's commitment to a discussion paper on safe access zones isn't enough. Laws known to promote women's health and safety, and which have the High Court's tick of constitutional approval, shouldn't be up for discussion – they should be a reality.

There is much to be hopeful for, with a High Court win, the modernisation of abortion laws in Queensland last year and abortion decriminalisation on the agenda this year in SA.

Each of us should be able to decide what is right for our bodies. Women have fought for this basic right for generations. So while history was made this week, we'll keep pushing leaders around Australia to make reproductive rights a reality for all.

Adrianne Walters is senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre.