Irish abortion vote puts spotlight on outdated Australian laws

Irish abortion vote puts spotlight on outdated Australian laws

This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald

Pretend it is 1899 in Queensland. I am not allowed to vote. I am seen as the property of men and my value is as a reproductive vessel. I can be sent to jail for the choices I make about my body.

Fast forward 119 years to 2018. I do not have to contemplate the repugnant idea of being seen as unworthy of the vote because of my sex. I can reject the institution of marriage and live in a committed relationship without fearing adverse legal consequences. But, I can still be labelled a criminal for decisions I make about my body.

On Friday, the people of Ireland will vote on whether a divisive constitutional ban on abortion should end. Ireland's abortion laws are some of the most harsh and archaic in the world – only since 2013 have abortions to save a woman's life been legal.

Make no mistake, the Irish referendum is a vote about the value given to women's lives.

But what a lot of people don't realise is that in most states in Australia, abortion is still in the criminal statute books. Laws created in 1899 and 1900 in Queensland and New South Wales still criminalise and stigmatise women's bodies. The threat is not simply a theoretical one – a Cairns couple was prosecuted for procuring an abortion less than 10 years ago.

There are exceptions that mean our laws in Australia are not nearly as draconian as those in Ireland. But in many cases these exceptions put ultimate decision-making power in the hands of doctors. These exceptions and the mere fact abortion is treated as a criminal justice matter, tell us that we lack the competence to make decisions about our own bodies and lives. The overwhelming majority of Australians reject this notion. So why don't our laws reflect our values?

It is 2018 and women's lives are still being controlled by 19th century views about gender and sex. The mere threat of criminal prosecution causes us harm.

In Ireland, many women are forced to fly overseas just to access the healthcare they need. Many others simply cannot afford to do so. In Australia some of us are forced to fly interstate just to exercise our right to make decisions about our bodies.

Some of us will feel forced to keep an unwanted pregnancy in spite of the psychological pain or the economic hardship this might cause. Some of us will resort to unsafe options that put our lives at risk.

Using the criminal law to dictate when we can access the healthcare we need stigmatises women. Perversely, it serves to legitimise the dangerous righteousness of those with extreme anti-abortion views – it implicitly tells them that it is OK to harass, abuse, manipulate and intimidate women seeking reproductive healthcare.

And in the worst cases, it kills us or those trying to help us.

In 2001, Stephen Rogers, a loving father, was tragically murdered by an anti-abortionist while employed as a security guard outside the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic.

In 2012, Savita Halappanavar died in an Irish hospital because she was having a miscarriage and doctors would not perform an abortion. More than a week after being rushed to hospital, after being denied the medical help she needed, Savita went into septic shock, suffered multi-organ failure and cardiac arrest and died. The Irish law prioritised her fetus over her life. And so did the medical professionals entrusted with her care.

The Irish referendum is an important moment to reflect upon the harm caused by one of the many forms of discrimination lived everyday by women around the world and in Australia.

It is a critical time for those Australian governments with outdated abortion laws to reflect on why their laws continue to defy community values, modern clinic practice and women's rights.

No other health service is regulated in the criminal law like abortion is. Every day we accept that health decisions are personal and should be made between a patient and their doctor. There are already strict rules to deal with situations where we are incapacitated in such a way that we cannot give consent.

The majority of Australians agree that women should be able to choose whether to have an abortion in consultation with their doctor. Doctors who just want to be able to act in their patients' best interests are waiting for laws to support them. Change is on the horizon in Queensland, with the government committed to decriminalising abortion and creating modern laws. But New South Wales, Western Australia and South Australia are lagging behind.

Most of you would agree that you are best placed to know what is best for your body and life. This respect and dignity should also be afforded to the tens of thousands of women in Australia that will need an abortion this year.

Adrianne Walters is a senior lawyer with the Human Rights Law Centre.