A fight for abortion rights in Queensland

Queensland Labor has proposed a bill, to be moved in October, that will remove abortion from the criminal code. 

The 1899 legislation in effect today contains penalties of seven years, 14 years or even life imprisonment for women who unlawfully terminate pregnancies and for people who assist them in doing so. 

Women can legally terminate pregnancies only if their life is deemed in danger. Most abortion providers are private clinics that leave women with out of pocket costs of between $250 and $4,000. Regional women are particularly disadvantaged: only two abortion providers exist outside the Brisbane area. 

Decades of Labor and Liberal governments have refused to challenge this sexism. Most recently, in 2016, Labor pressured independent Cairns MP Rob Pyne into withdrawing a private member’s bill that proposed decriminalisation. 

The bill Labor is putting forward now will remove abortion entirely from the criminal code. Women will be able to terminate a pregnancy up to 22 weeks, after which point they will require the consent of two health practitioners. 

It is far from perfect: it contains a maximum seven-year jail sentence for people who assist a woman in unlawfully terminating a pregnancy, and “backyard” abortions will continue as long as the procedure is costly and inaccessible. 

The bill also gives a free kick to conservatives by allowing health practitioners the right to “conscientiously object”, although they must refer women to other doctors or services. This mandates that abortion is a controversial moral question rather than a matter of women’s health. 

There’s a long fight ahead for full abortion rights – and this bill passing would be a historic milestone in that battle.

Yet its passage is not guaranteed. Labor is putting women’s rights in jeopardy by allowing a conscience vote. Labor holds 48 out of 93 votes in the parliament. If its members were bound to vote for this bill, decriminalisation would be guaranteed. By refusing to discipline the anti-woman elements in the party, Labor is leaving potentially decisive votes in conservative hands. 

The remaining Queensland parliament is a smattering of right wing, anti-woman forces: the LNP, One Nation and Katter’s Australian Party. only Greens MP Michael Berkman is certain to vote for legal abortion.

This means that all those who are pro-choice have a fight on our hands. Queensland’s parliament can’t be trusted. Students and workers must organise in the streets to pressure MPs to defend a woman’s right to choose.

The National Union of Students has called a protest for Tuesday 18 September at 4:30pm in King George Square in Brisbane. We will be calling on all parliamentarians to vote for abortion decriminalisation. 

Queensland’s activists have demanded legal abortion for decades. It’s time to win.