: Threats to Victoria’s Abortion Laws

Threats to Victoria’s Abortion Laws

Ronli Sifris
Victoria

An assessment of reproductive rights in Australia, particularly the right to access abortion services, reveals a political and legal landscape in which progress on one front is frequently accompanied by regression on another front. For example, in recent years there has been significant progress in the form of the decriminalisation of abortion in Victoria (2008) and Tasmania (2013). At the same time, threats to the right of women to terminate a pregnancy have taken various forms. For example, in 2008 there was a failed attempt to remove Medicare funding for second trimester abortions, and legislation (known as Zoe’s Law) which explicitly recognises the foetus as a person in certain circumstances is currently before the New South Wales Parliament.

The situation in Victoria provides a particularly interesting and topical example of the constant controversy which surrounds a woman’s right to make decisions relating to her own body. In 2008, when the Victorian parliament legislated to decriminalise abortion, many naively thought that the issue would be laid to rest. After all, legislative change in Victoria was precipitated by significant political and public debate; on the floor of parliament the Bill was debated for 61 hours and 24 minutes. Despite the fact that the matter was debated and resolved in 2008, due to an unfortunate confluence of events (namely, that the Minister who currently holds the balance of power in the Victorian Legislative Assembly is leading the charge to turn back the clock on Victoria’s reforms) it seems that the right of women to choose to access abortion services may once again be under threat.

In 2013 MP Geoff Shaw signalled his intention to draft a private member’s Bill to remove the section of the 2008 Abortion Law Reform Act which stipulates that a doctor with a conscientious objection to abortion must refer a woman to a doctor who does not have such a conscientious objection. This section of the Act (s 8) has been particularly controversial since its inception as a number of doctors have expressed the view that it infringes on their freedom of conscience/religion on the basis that it renders them complicit in an act with respect to which they have a conscientious objection. Yet Shaw has not restricted himself to suggesting that s 8 be removed. He has subsequently mooted numerous more extensive amendments to the Act, including provisions relating to compulsory counselling, parental notification, late-term abortions, gender-selection and resuscitation of foetuses. It is to be hoped that the bodily autonomy of Victorian women does not lie in the hands of a man most well-known for simulating masturbation in parliament and for his assertion that ‘here in Australia we can’t kill snake eggs but we are quite happy to kill an egg in the tummy and it should be the safest place for a baby to be.’

RONLI SIFRIS teaches law at Monash University.

(2014) 39(1) AltLJ 142
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