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Federation congratulates and acknowledges the efforts of activists, campaigners and politicians supporting the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill NSW 2019, which was passed by the NSW lower house on 8 August.
Independent MP Alex Greenwich introduced the Bill to parliament with 15 co-sponsors from across the political parties. At times, the debate was intense, as were the rallies outside Parliament House. After three days of lengthy debate, the Bill was passed just before 11pm with 59 votes in favour to 31 against. The Bill then proceeded to the Standing Committee on Social Issues for inquiry and report. At the time of publication, the bill was due to be debated in the lower house, with amendments not to be moved until September.
The proposed legislation in the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill was formally listed as “an Act about reforming the law relating to terminations of pregnancies and regulating the conduct of health practitioners in relation to terminations”. This would create a standalone health care act to regulate the procedure and excise abortion from the 119-year-old NSW Crimes Act.
This is significant because NSW is the only Australian state or territory not to have modernised its laws pertaining to termination of pregnancy. The current laws restrict doctors from providing a full range of reproductive health services and make it difficult for women to access the care they need. Further, the current law generates stigma, confusion and a fear of prosecution which can discourage the provision of this reproductive health care service because the Crimes Act carries a penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment for not only women who access abortion but also the health practitioners who perform or assist in a procedure.
Criminalisation has disproportionately affected women from disadvantaged, rural and remote communities, or those facing domestic violence or homelessness, especially when they lack the financial means to travel long distances to access this medical procedure, and are often unable to do so.
Decisions to seek reproductive health care, such as a termination of pregnancy, are not made on a whim. They are decisions made with great difficulty and emotional angst, often compounded with societal shaming or false moralistic judgement that questions sexual behaviour or denounces a perceived lack of maternal inclination.
In 2016, when Dr Mehreen Faruqi was a member of the NSW upper house, she attempted to introduce legislative reform but was unsuccessful. However, activists and campaigners established the NSW Pro-Choice Alliance, led by the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Family Planning NSW and Women’s Health NSW. The alliance represents expert legal, health and community voices from across the state.
The alliance has been a major driving force in the campaign by coordinating actions, the development of resources to assist with educating the community, and, essentially, contacting politicians. The key components of the campaign have been to ensure the decriminalisation of abortion and its redefinition as a health care procedure; to destigmatise and remove loaded language surrounding it; and to empower women with the right to choose what happens to their own bodies while guaranteeing access to safe, high quality health care.
Over the course of the last century, we have seen vehement resistance when it comes to women’s bodily autonomy and fierce attacks on educational programs that dared to explain to students any factual information on gender, sexual health, reproduction, contraception and termination.
During the debate, NSW Minister for Health and Medical Research Brad Hazzard said: “Today, we the people’s representatives here in the NSW parliament have the opportunity to right a wrong enacted into law 119 years ago ... A law that put women’s reproductive rights into the criminal code. A law which was enacted when this place had legislators who were all men.” (Guardian Australia, 6 August, 2019)
There would be many of us who can recall when a woman needed permission from her husband to obtain a passport or a bank card; or a male relative as guarantor for a loan; or pregnant women having to resign from their job and superannuation fund; or the debates around supporting IVF.
‘Decisions to seek reproductive health care, such as a termination of pregnancy, are not made on a whim’
When long time campaigner and co-founder of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Wendy McCarthy, who was in the gallery during the lower house debate, was asked how she was coping with the delays from so many amendments — 19 all up, and many deliberate to delay debate — she replied on social media that “women had already waited 119 years” so she “wasn’t going anywhere”.
It is the determination and commitment of previous generations that have achieved progress for us so we must continue.
The passing of the Bill will represent the separation of outdated religious and moral judgements from the administration of reproductive health care needed by women, and people identifying as transgender or in transition.
It’s “my body, my choice” but we all have a responsibility to ensure everyone has access to the health care and support they need.
— Leeanda Smith,