The Queensland parliament has passed a bill striking all references to abortion from the criminal code. Under new legislation, women can access an abortion on request during the first 22 weeks of pregnancy and with the consent of two health practitioners after that time.
This move is long overdue. For at least 15 years, there has been majority public support for decriminalisation. Polls conducted in 2003 and 2017 both found more than 80 percent of those surveyed supported a woman’s right to choose. Parliamentarians have lagged far behind public opinion.
This is a historic victory. It is a vindication of those who have protested from 1985, when then premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson ordered raids on Brisbane’s abortion clinics, to today. It is a blow to the conservatives.
The anti-choice minority, who enjoy undue representation in halls of parliament, have been momentarily sidelined. The Liberal National Party is livid. Days after the vote, the Qld Young Liberals passed a motion demanding that three LNP parliamentarians who crossed the floor to vote for the legislation be denied preselection.
Labor is celebrating the Palaszczuk government as saviours of women: the first majority-female cabinet in Australian history scrapping a 119-year-old sexist law. Labor MPs, however, are not heroes. Supporters of women’s rights should be critical of what they have, and have not, done for abortion rights in their term of government.
In the lead-up to the vote, Labor argued that it was a make or break for abortion rights that the LNP allow a conscience vote on the bill. This hand-wringing could have been avoided had Labor disciplined the anti-choice bigots in its party and bound the caucus to vote for choice.
In the end, the LNP was irrelevant to the outcome. The vote passed 50 to 41. Only one Labor MP, former police minister Jo-Ann Miller, voted against, and one other ALP member abstained.
Labor has held government in Queensland for most of the period since the late 1980s. It could have decriminalised abortion years ago. Instead, as recently as 2016, it blocked independent MP Rob Pyne’s decriminalisation bill.
While it is a significant step forward that punitive and outdated morality has been scrapped from the legal framework, there is a fight ahead for Queensland women to win full reproductive rights.
The main barrier to accessing abortion in Queensland isn’t the threat of being thrown into prison. It’s being too poor to afford the procedure, or unable to find a clinician who will perform one.
Abortion is expensive. Women face out of pocket costs, after Medicare, of between $250 and $4,000. Only two abortion practitioners exist outside the Brisbane area; women in rural Queensland sometimes travel hundreds of kilometres to find clinics.
These problems have led women to dangerous or desperate acts to exercise control over their bodies. At least 119 women attempted, or considered, performing abortions on themselves in the past five years. In one instance, a woman injured herself so badly she required a hysterectomy.
Labor’s bill contains a clause allowing health practitioners to “conscientiously object” to providing abortions. For women living regionally, this is already the situation; anti-choice doctors deny women the right to abortion, and when medical services are scarce, often there is nowhere else to go.
The fight must continue for free abortion on demand, accessible in public hospitals. For this to become reality, Labor would need to invest hundreds of millions more into health care. This promise was missing from Palaszczuk’s self-congratulatory speeches.