This guest-post comes from Australian harpy Mackey. It was written in the spirit of the cross-border conversations that happen at the Pursuit of Harpyness, and the sharing of experiences.
In Australia, there is no federal case like Roe v Wade that establishes legalised abortion. Around the same time as Roe v Wade, there was major case law establishing when abortion is considered legal and would not be prosecuted under the respective criminal codes/statutes of the states and territories that make up the federation that is Australia. But there was no legislation, in the 1960s and 1970s that legalised abortion.
The case law itself put maternal health, in part, at the centre of the determining whether a legal abortion could be performed (this is not to trivialise cases where women with disabilities, Indigenous women, and minority women were deleteriously affected by doctors’ decisions). Maternal health broadly considered the life, mental health, and economic and social conditions that could adversely affect the woman concerned.
Instead feminists and pro-choice activists are still campaigning for the majority states and the Northern Territory to take abortion out of their respective criminal codes/statutes. The Australian Capital Territory and Victoria have already done so (and massive feminist shout outs to the women and pro-choice campaigners who worked to achieve that momentous legislative decision). With that said, the legislative and social environment (federally and in the states and territories) seems markedly different to that of the United States.
Today about 2/3 of Australians support the right of women to access surgical/medical abortions. Local, state and federal elections are not fought solely on the issue of a candidate’s stance on abortion. This is possibly due to the following –abortion and its accessibility is determined in different jurisdictions, Australia’s federalism means that different types of decisions on similar issues reside with the different state/territory and the federal jurisdictions, with broad community support it no longer is a divisive issue, and the Australian system of compulsory voting in elections.
The most recent community discussion, in 2006, about the issue of abortion was the availability of the abortion drug RU486. The previous federal government, the conservative Liberal Party, used its majority in both houses of federal parliament to vote to allow the Federal Health Minister to make a determination about whether “restricted drugs”, like abortifacients, could be assessed by the Therapeutic Drugs Administration for community use. This decision politicised the issue of abortion, allowing the personal views of the federal health minister to determine if a “restricted drug” could be examined by the Therapeutic Drugs Administration.
The general idea of the function of the Therapeutic Drugs Administration is that it does not take a moral stance on what the function of a particular drug is; instead the medical and scientific experts of this body assess the drug on its efficacy to determine if it will be available for community use. The then Federal Health Minister, Tony Abbot (now Federal Opposition Leader) was explicitly against RU486 and continues to be against any form of abortion, thus was not going to allow RU486 to be assessed by the Therapeutic Drugs Administration.
The determination of the Federal Health Minister to allow “restricted drugs” to be assessed by the Therapeutic Drugs Administration has since been overturned. This is in no small part to pro-choice groups, and the cross party workings a group of pro-choice women senators and lower house representatives. A group of 4 cross party senators, representing the formal political parties of the day, the conservative Liberal Party, the Labor Party, the Democrats, and the National Party, sponsored a private members bill to change the legislation.
Whilst the Australian context may seem pro-choice, there have been particular instances that illustrate how precarious the situation can be where there isn’t established case law/decriminalisation of abortion giving legal force for the full range of family planning options.
- In 2006 in New South Wales, a doctor was convicted of two counts of performing an illegal abortion as she failed to establish as to whether a lawful reason for performing the abortion existed.
- In 2007, there was a debate in the Federal Senate about the truth in advertising for organisations providing crisis pregnancy counselling services. Crisis pregnancy centres were not required to indicate whether they were all-options counselling services. When women called anti-choice services that were not advertised as such, when abortion was mentioned as a possible option by anxious women, false and misleading information was sometimes provided.
- There has been as recent as 2008 a proposal to remove Medicare (Australia’s public health care system) funding for second trimester abortions. It wouldn’t matter if the foetus has died, a diagnosis of gross foetal abnormality is made, and/or the woman has a life threatening illness, there would be no provision under Medicare for the surgical abortion to be performed.
For these reasons and more, feminists and pro-choice campaigners in Australia remain vigilant.