Abortion decriminalised in Queensland after 50-year struggle

Queensland has finally decriminalised abortion, after state parliament approved new laws on 17 October. It has taken 50 years of struggle and campaigning.

Abortion is now legal in Queensland up to 22 weeks of pregnancy. After that time, two doctors decide whether the procedure can go ahead. Doctors who are “conscientious objectors” can refuse to conduct abortions but must refer women to an appropriate alternative.

It took a major social upheaval in the 1960s and the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement to create momentum for change.

By the 1970s some doctors were convinced to challenge the law, winning court rulings that allowed abortions in order to protect the well-being of the woman. Until then many women died accessing illegal backstreet abortions.

The struggle for abortion rights in Queensland has been particularly fierce. In 1980 Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen attempted to ban all abortions except where the mother’s life was in danger or in cases of rape, incest or deformity of the foetus. His Pregnancy Termination Control Bill was introduced with little warning about its contents.

Anti-abortionists in the Right to Life spent up big on 100 advertisements in buses, radio broadcasts featuring heartbeats of foetuses and a “Celebrate Life” march.

But a militant campaign of opposition saw the government’s supporters drop away.

On the evening of the Bill’s last reading on 20 May about 5000 pro-abortion activists met in King George Square, supported by unions including the Trades and Labour Council. They marched tentatively on the footpath at first, and then illegally took the streets to parliament.

On arrival, iron gates were locked to keep people out. The protesters weren’t deterred. Pushing the gates over, they marched into the grounds and around the rose garden.

On the eve of the final vote the government gave up and converted the Bill to a private member’s Bill. Nineteen government members including four ministers crossed the floor and killed it. It was an election year, but the lesson was that tightening up abortion laws anytime was not worth the risk of the anti-government feeling unleashed.

Then in 1985 Bjelke-Petersen ordered police raids on the abortion clinic at Greenslopes, operating since 1976, and 20,000 patient files were removed for investigation. In response to a public complaint, the doctors Bayliss and Cullen were tried. They were found not guilty of procuring an illegal abortion—the law was too vague to guarantee a conviction, in the context of strong pro-abortion sentiment.

Decriminalisation ends ongoing potential jail threats and fines against women and abortion providers. As recently as 2010 a couple in Cairns were tried and acquitted of procuring an abortion.

Law reform

Abortion is a simple gynaecological procedure which is used by one in three women during their lives to end unwanted pregnancies. It is estimated that 80,000-90,000 women in Australia terminate a pregnancy each year. Improvements in technology have made the procedure safer and medical abortions (such as using the RU486 pill) make early pregnancy abortion much simpler.

Opinion polls continue to show 80 per cent support for a woman’s right to choose. This is why abortion should be totally removed from Criminal Codes, as it is in the ACT where abortion is regulated under the Health Act.

Law reform in every state and territory, except NSW, has made abortion legal on request up to various stages of pregnancy. In NSW unlawful abortion remains a criminal offence, although established court rulings allow access.

However, there remain restrictions because of lack of services and funding, especially for women in regional areas who have to travel to access abortion. Tasmania’s only abortion clinic closed at the end of last year. And an ongoing stigma still surrounds the procedure.

Anti-abortion groups continue to protest outside clinics. The Queensland legislation prohibits such harassment within 150 metres of a clinic, as do similar laws in NSW, Victoria, the ACT and the Northern Territory. Anti-abortion campaigners are currently challenging these laws in the High Court, claiming they restrict “free speech”.

The unnecessary difficulties can only be explained by the systematic oppression of women. Capitalism benefits from women’s unpaid labour within the family, reproducing the next generation of workers. The efforts to restrict a woman’s control over her own body reflect the desire to promote sexist ideas and women’s role in bringing up children.

The progress on abortion laws is an important victory. But to fully win women’s liberation we need a socialist movement that can take on capitalism.

Growing participation in the workforce has permanently established women as capable of struggle as part of the working class. But women still do not have full control over their bodies. It’s a right still to be won

By Judy McVey


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