By Luca Cherubin and Troy Maher
In response to an inquiry by the Queensland Law Reform Commision (QLRC), Dr Ronli Sifris and Dr Tania Penovic recently made a submission on behalf of the Castan Centre for the review of the termination of pregnancy laws in Queensland. In Queensland, an abortion is only legal if the continuation of the pregnancy poses a serious risk to a women’s physical or mental health. As such, abortions are not available on request as they are in a number of Australian jurisdictions. This has led to abortion being treated as a criminal justice issue rather than a public health issue. For example, in R v Brennan & Leach  QDC 329, a woman was prosecuted for procuring her own miscarriage. The World Health Organisation has observed that restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates, and that lack of access to safe, legal abortion results in higher mortality from unsafe abortions. The debate around access to abortion remains coloured by intractable and passionately held views. However, abortions are a fact of human existence.
Abortion Access in other Jurisdictions
In Victoria, ‘abortion on request’ is legally available up to 24 weeks gestation. In Western Australia, it is up to 20 weeks gestation, Tasmania up to 16 weeks gestation, and in the Northern Territory up to 14 weeks. Only the ACT imposes no gestational limit on a woman’s ability to access abortion services without seeking the approval of a medical practitioner. However, it is important to note that even in states where abortion on request is legally available, this does not necessarily translate into factual availability for all women. There are numerous other barriers to abortion access, including financial barriers, geographic barriers and the availability of medical practitioners willing to provide the service. These issues may disproportionately impact women from rural or remote areas, low socio-economic status or indigenous women.
The Castan Centre’s Submission
The Castan Centre’s submission to the Queensland Law Reform Commission made a number of recommendations to bring the state’s abortion laws more in line with human rights. The Centre believes that abortion should be considered as a health issue, rather than a criminal justice issue. A woman should be free to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy without a doctor playing gatekeeper, and without the threat of criminal consequences for their decision.
The Centre recommended that with the increased availability of medical, rather than surgical terminations, medical practitioners with different levels of appropriate qualifications should be authorised to administer medical terminations. We also recommended that Queensland follow the ACT’s example and remove the gestational limit on legal abortion. This would mean that there would be no gestational time limit imposed, and abortion would be treated like any other health issue: available with informed consent and professional willingness. This position accepts that women are in the best position to judge whether they need an abortion and should be empowered to make that choice. Further, where abortion is treated differently to other medical procedures, it stigmatises the issue, which can be highly distressing for women. At the very least, the submission recommended that Queensland follow the Victorian approach, which imposes a gestational limit of 24 weeks for ‘abortion on request’.
In Victoria, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, doctors may refuse to participate in an abortion, but have an obligation to refer patients to a doctor who will. The submission recommended that Queensland follow this approach, however that such objections should not be permissible in emergency situations. Additionally, the Centre urges the Commission to give serious thought to the situation of women who may have limited access to a practitioner willing to perform the procedure, for example women in rural or remote areas in Queensland.
The Castan Centre believes that to assist in making evidence based clinical guidelines on this issue, Queensland should introduce mandatory reporting of anonymised data about pregnancy terminations.
Finally, the Centre recommended that Queensland introduce safe access zones around abortion centres to protect patients and healthcare practitioners from suffering distress due to anti-abortion protesters.
The Queensland Law Reform Commision is due to report on the outcomes of the review to the Attorney-General and the Minister for Justice and Minister for Training and Skills by 30th June 2018. The Castan Centre looks forward to further progress being made on this issue in the future, and the health and safety of women in Queensland being improved.
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