Firstly, I thank all members who contributed to today’s historic debate on the Abortion Law Reform (Miscellaneous Acts Amendment) Bill 2016, including my colleagues David Shoebridge, Dawn Walker and Jeremy Buckingham; the Hon. Penny Sharpe; the Hon. Trevor Khan; the Hon. Mark Pearson; the Hon. Ernest Wong; the Hon. Daniel Mookhey; the Hon. John Graham; the Hon. Lynda Voltz; the Hon. Adam Searle; and the Hon. Robert Brown. I must say it is disappointing that only one member from the Government made their views known on this bill which will be voted on today and which is so important to so many in our State. I must also thank my staff, Matt, Maliha and Tamara, and all the volunteers who have spent countless hours, energy and passion on the campaign to decriminalise abortion. I also thank my Greens colleagues for their ongoing support on this long and, without question, difficult campaign. But what is the point of being in this privileged position if we do not stick our necks out on issues that our communities want us to address?
I also especially thank the thousands of people across New South Wales—in cities, in regional towns, in town halls, in universities and on the streets—who over the past three years have come out in support of this reform, campaigned hard and joined with doctors, lawyers and women’s groups to help draft this bill. I acknowledge that some of you are here today—thank you. You have all been vital in getting abortion law reform on the legislative agenda. Dr Philippa Ramsay, Julie Hamblin, Darelle Duncan, Dr Caroline DeCosta, Professor Alexandra Barratt, Dr Sue Jacobs and Associate Professor Kirsten Black deserve special thanks: From the day we started thinking about this reform to the drafting of the bill and this campaign, your work towards this reform has been instrumental.
The questions before this Parliament today are these: Do we want to remove criminal offences around abortion and leave it to be regulated the same way as other medical procedures? Do we want to make sure that women are able to access a medical procedure in safety, dignity and medical privacy? Do we want doctors who have an objection to abortion to refer patients on to another doctor who does not, and who can give them the full gamut of options available? A vast majority of people in New South Wales and Australia have said: “Yes, we do,” to all three questions.
Polling has repeatedly shown that the vast majority of Australians and people in New South Wales support a woman’s right to choose and the decriminalisation of abortion. People in rural, regional and metropolitan New South Wales, across party lines and irrespective of age and gender, overwhelmingly support the three changes proposed by the bill in front of all of us today. The bill that we are debating today is not a Faruqi bill, as has been claimed by some, or a Greens bill—we are just sponsors of this bill. I have brought it to this Parliament on behalf of the women of New South Wales, medical practitioners, lawyers and, most importantly, the community that overwhelmingly supports the decriminalisation of abortion and the enactment of safe access zones outside clinics.
Of course this legislation is personal as well. I am a woman, I have a 21 year old daughter and I want women now and into the future to have the unambiguous legal right to bodily autonomy and to make their own health choices without fear or the burden of criminality hanging over their heads. We know making a decision about an abortion is never taken lightly and is made more difficult with the barriers that are present at the moment. I recognise that there are some deeply held religious views in this Chamber, but as lawmakers we must remember that this is a secular Parliament and a secular system of governance. Neither my religion nor yours should be allowed to deny women their rights and choices. I respect the rights of those whose faith or beliefs do not allow them to have or perform an abortion, but an individual’s religious beliefs have no authority over the right of other individuals who make different choices.
Abortion in New South Wales is procured through a legal loophole based on a District Court ruling which makes this procedure lawful if a doctor deems it is necessary to prevent a serious risk to the life or health of a woman. There is no doubt that this grey area of law creates a risk for doctors and women. Many public hospitals and doctors do not perform pregnancy terminations due to this position of legal limbo. Some have suggested that all is okay because prosecutions are rare, but it would be totally inaccurate to assume that there are no practical consequences of abortion in the Crimes Act. Criminalising abortion achieves nothing other than increasing the stigma surrounding the procedure and increasing delays in accessing services. It makes access harder and more expensive and privatises it.
If a person has the money and lives in an urban centre like Sydney, they probably will not have a lot of problems accessing a pregnancy termination. But what about women in Broken Hill, Walgett or Moree? People who do not live on the East Coast are hard-pressed to find a specialist clinic. Access to terminations in public hospitals is largely based on the luck of the draw, dependent on a particular hospital’s policy and even the opinion of the particular treating physician a person is allocated. Would we accept this for any other health matter? I think not.
I now wish to address some specific issues that have been raised in the debate. I have heard members concerns about certain aspects of the bill. I have always been and still am open to discussing changes if they genuinely allay these concerns and do not further undermine the right of women to choose. However, I cannot accept the claim that the bill is badly crafted or deeply flawed. The bill before us today is the culmination of months of intense consultations with doctors, lawyers, health professionals, legal professionals, academics, women’s groups and the community. The exposure draft of this bill was released more than a year ago and I introduced the bill into New South Wales Parliament in August 2016. This is a bill that has been crafted carefully and meets modern medical practice and public expectations in the twenty-first century. Elements of this bill operate—and operate well—in jurisdictions such as Tasmania, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory.
The bill has been reviewed and endorsed by many organisations including the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the body responsible for training and examining obstetricians and gynaecologists in New Zealand and Australia; the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties; the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association; the Public Health Association; Women’s Legal Services; New South Wales Teachers Federation; Australian Lawyers for Human Rights; the National Tertiary Education Union; Family Planning NSW; White Ribbon; Marie Stopes; and the list goes on. More than 300 medical practitioners have written an open letter to members of this Parliament in support of this bill. More than 100 law and criminology experts have written a separate open letter to MPs imploring them to support the bill. It is time for New South Wales politicians to listen to them.
Consultation has been raised by some members as an issue, and I find this quite extraordinary. I first gave notice of this bill two years ago and introduced it last year under the Baird Government, contrary to the suggestions of the Hon. Catherine Cusack in the media that this is an effort to test the Premier on women’s issues. This is not about testing anyone but about making a greatly needed and long overdue change. Developing this bill has been a considered, consultative and thorough process. It has been drafted with lawyers and doctors and included a three-month draft exposure process for public consultation. It has been far from a rushed process. How long are we meant to wait for politicians to catch up to the community? It has been more than 100 years already.
At the beginning of the three-month public draft exposure period in May 2016, I reached out. I sent copies of the bill to the relevant Ministers and shadow Ministers—I invited their feedback and asked for a meeting—including the Hon. Paul Lynch; the Hon. Walt Secord; the then MLC, the Hon. Sophie Cotsis; and the then Attorney General, Gabriel Upton, among many other Ministers in the new Berejiklian Cabinet.
Many members have received information and updates from me and had one-on-one meetings. My door has always been open, and I do not think it is a fair assertion to say otherwise. That assertion has been made in the media on the eve of the debate to score cheap political points.
Some members have presented the unfounded argument that this bill allows abortions up to birth—that is, up to the day the baby is born. That is a myth being peddled by the anti-choice lobby. To suggest that women will carry a pregnancy to term and then to terminate it is offensive and has no grounding in reality. There is no evidence that this ever happens. With modern medical practice and ethics, no doctor would do that. This bill is about taking abortion out of the Crimes Act and ensuring that women and their health practitioners are not treated as criminals for performing or undergoing a medical procedure. This bill does not change current medical practice on late-term pregnancy termination, and to suggest otherwise is misinformed. A similar law has been on the statute books in the Australian Capital Territory since 2002, and there is no evidence of any increase in late-term abortions. In fact, several studies have documented that safe and legal abortions reduce the number of late-term pregnancy terminations. This demonstrates that we can trust women, doctors and nurses to deal with these sensitive issues.
The worst of the misinformation being peddled is the suggestion that women will now terminate pregnancies on the day of birth or an hour before birth. That is not only incredibly offensive and outrageous but also a lie that comes straight out of the playbook of the anti-choice lobby. The reality is that only 0.7 per cent of abortions take place after 20 weeks of gestation, and they almost always relate to severe foetal abnormality or serious risks to the health of the patient. The sensitive and difficult issue of late-term abortions will continue to be covered adequately, as it has been by guidelines provided by both the New South Wales Health Framework for Pregnancy Terminations and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The scenarios that have been outlined in some contributions are not grounded in any kind of reality or understanding of modern medical practice.
It has also been claimed that this bill will allow an abortion to be performed by unqualified people. Are people seriously suggesting that if this legislation were enacted and abortion were legalised and made easily available, women would bypass seeing their general practitioner or health specialist and deliberately seek out someone who was not medically qualified to perform a surgical abortion? A medical abortion requires medication prescribed by a doctor and dispensed by a pharmacist. That will not change when abortion is decriminalised. All these professions are regulated under the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law, which will continue to stop unqualified people from practising as doctors, pharmacists or nurses. Anything done without the permission of the woman constitutes now and would continue to constitute the offence of causing grievously bodily harm, which carries substantial penalties.
Members who have said that they are pro-choice but cannot support this bill cannot have it both ways. They cannot claim to be pro-choice and then vote against a bill that is all about choice. They cannot claim to be pro-choice and then support keeping abortion offences in the Crimes Act that effectively criminalise women seeking terminations and their doctors. This bill is far from radical. As Sydney lawyer Julie Hamblin puts it, “The changes proposed in this bill are straightforward and sensible.” It repeals the existing offences in the Crimes Act, leaving abortion to be regulated in the same way as any other medical procedure.
The bill makes it unlawful to intimidate and harass women accessing abortion clinics. The medical privacy of patients must be respected, as we would expect in regard to any other medical procedure. The bill allows health professionals to express their conscientious objection, and they are no longer required to provide any advice related to abortion or to perform the procedure as long as they refer the patient to either another medical practitioner or a women’s health clinic. That is what we are voting on today. We have come this far, and we will not stop. Today is a historic day for women’s rights in New South Wales. This Parliament has had to confront an issue that it has avoided for well over 100 years. This is only the start—we have created overwhelming momentum and we can only move forward from here.
I have been repeatedly asked why the New South Wales Parliament has never debated the decriminalisation of abortion. Well, today we have broken that barrier. I have also been asked again and again why New South Wales has not moved to give women a reproductive health choice with full legal backing when many other States have moved that way. Today is an opportunity for us to do that—to get rid of an archaic law and to take another step forward in ensuring the rights of women in this State, as many other States in Australia have already done. As women have said for decades and reiterated outside this place just this morning: Not the church, not the State, women must decide their fate. I commend the bill to the House.