Speech on the Abortion Law Reform (Miscellaneous Acts Amendment) Bill 2016

In Parliament | 11.05.17


Second Reading

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE (12:00)

I indicate I will support this very important bill before the House today, the Abortion Law Reform (Miscellaneous Acts Amendment) Bill 2016. I support the objects of this bill. In 2017 abortion should not be in our Crimes Act. In 2017 women should not be intimidated or harassed when entering a reproductive health clinic. The sections of the Crimes Act that cover abortion were originally based on the United Kingdom's 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act, and were passed into law by the New South Wales Parliament in 1900. These laws are now 116 years old. 

After 116 years these laws are no longer in line with community expectation or modern medical practice. With thousands of safe, legal abortions conducted in New South Wales each year it is past time for our laws to reflect the reality in our community. Abortion should be regulated in the same way as all other surgical and medical practices. Our current law is archaic and unclear. It creates barriers for patients and for doctors. These barriers are greater for those already disadvantaged. The current reality is a two-tier system. In our cities, those with money can end an unwanted pregnancy safely and with minimal disruption to their life and their employment. For those who live in regional and remote areas, and for those struggling with the weight of financial disadvantage, the situation is far less simple. 

As a result of our current laws, abortion in New South Wales is provided almost exclusively in the private system. Nowhere else in the health system are patients left without the safety net of public provision. The Crimes Act deters public provision of abortion to those who are most disadvantaged. In a country and a State that prides itself on our public health system, this should not be tolerated. It is also the case that in no other circumstances would the harassment and intimidation of women, their partners and their supporters be tolerated as they are accessing lawful medical services. In no other workplace would staff be subjected to the ongoing harassment that has become part and parcel of the workplace for those who work in abortion clinics. 

I come to the abortion debate in New South Wales as a person who grew up in Canberra at a time when there was no access to abortion in the Australian Capital Territory [ACT]. This was the eighties. As a young woman, I knew the lengths my friends and I would go to try to obtain contraceptives without our parents finding out. I shared with my friends the anxiety of being worried about an unplanned pregnancy—the buying of the test at a chemist a long way from home to make sure you did not run into anyone you knew; the longest 10 minutes of your life after you peed on the stick and waited to see if there was one line or two. For some of my friends there were two lines. What happened next was hard—either go ahead with an unplanned pregnancy and hope for the best or wonder how or when you could get the money together, travel to Sydney and hope that your parents did not find out that you were going to have a termination. In most cases our parents did not even know that we were having sex. 

This was my first inkling, long before I called myself a feminist, that access to safe legal abortion was essential for women to live their lives freely. Unplanned pregnancies are a fact of life. In fact, on some estimations, half of all pregnancies in Australia are unplanned. Some are a delightful and welcome surprise; some are not. Unplanned pregnancies happen for a range of reasons. No contraception is 100 per cent effective. Contraception can fail even when used correctly and consistently. The most common contraceptive in Australia, the oral contraceptive pill, is around 91 per cent effective, meaning that up to nine women out of every 100 using it will fall pregnant in a year. The World Health Organisation estimates that even if all contraceptive users used contraception perfectly in every sexual encounter, there would still be six million unintended pregnancies every year. 

We do not live in a world where women always have a free and autonomous choice. We live in a world where one in three women experience some form of sexual assault; we live in a world with domestic violence; we live in a world where I have to tell my daughter not to leave her drink unattended at the pub. It is unconscionable that a woman should have the trauma and violation of sexual assault or violence compounded by being forced through nine months of a pregnancy. Moreover, I utterly reject the argument that a woman loses the right to decide what happens to and within her body if she has sex. The reality is, women have always been determined to make that decision. As Helen Garner wrote in her forward to Jo Wainer's book Lost: Illegal Abortion Stories

It's an awe inspiring force, the iron determination of a woman who refuses to bear a child that she knows she cannot mother. Down through the ages, no religious anathema, no legal proscription has been able to weaken the adamantine power of her refusal. 

Women confronted with an unwanted pregnancy—for whatever reason—have always tried to find ways to end that pregnancy. The wealthy had access to discreet doctors and clean clinics. The poor had the back alley, the de‑registered or never-qualified medical practitioner, the gin bottle and the coathanger. Years ago, at the New South Wales Justice and Police Museum, you could have seen the exhibit on illegal abortions—a room that was wallpapered from floor to ceiling with old black-and-white photographs of beds, the rumpled sheets flung back, the mattresses stained with blood. They were crime-scene photographs—photographs of the rooms women had died in, haemorrhaging to death or burning with the fever of septicaemia, after desperate recourse to any method of ending their pregnancy they could find. These were rooms in which women had suffered horrific, disabling injuries that left them with life-long pain; rooms in which women had risked their lives because the danger, the pain and the fear were all better options than a pregnancy they knew they could not continue. 

We know the stories of many of those women. Some were pregnant because they were raped—by strangers, by members of their family or by their husbands. Some made every effort to avoid pregnancy. Some were kept in ignorance about even the possibility of contraception. Some were mothers who made loving, happy homes for their children but who did not have the money, the space or the time for another child. Whoever they were and whatever their circumstances, each and every one of them had the right to decide what happened to her own body and each and every one of them had the right to make that choice safely. This was not the Dark Ages; this was just last century. And it is for those women that I say never again. We should never, we can never, we will never go back. In the 1970s our legal system delivered a judgement through the Levine ruling that gave women and their doctors a framework to provide safer and legal abortion. This was further refined by the Court of Appeal in 1995. 

I have been working for the right of women to choose since I first became politically active. It is one of the reasons I became politically active. Through university, through the Labor Party and in unashamedly pro-choice organisations like EMILY's List I continue to pursue this. When I was first elected to be a councillor on Marrickville Council, one of the first questions I asked the mayor was, "How do I stop women being harassed outside the clinic on Salisbury Road?" There used to be a clinic there. I learned that there was nothing we could do without a change in the law. Years later I was elected to this Parliament. I have been in this place for 11 years. I have worked with pro-choice members from all sides of Parliament as we looked at what we could do to advance abortion law reform. This was challenging and, as we have seen today, it remains a challenging task. We have counted numbers—always counting numbers—and with the fierce, committed and clever women's organisations across New South Wales we have held off an erosion of access to abortion and stared down various attempts to erode women's reproductive rights. 

During that time we have seen decriminalisation of abortion occur in the ACT, Tasmania, Western Australia, Victoria and, most recently, the Northern Territory. Yet here we are today with abortion still in the Crimes Act in New South Wales. Most people in New South Wales would be flabbergasted to know that this is the case. Most people in New South Wales would be astonished to know that our State's legal framework to allow a woman to end a pregnancy means it is not up to her, but up to her doctor. The medical and legal professions are overwhelmingly in support of decriminalising abortion. Women and men in New South Wales are overwhelmingly in support of decriminalising abortion. Yet here we are today and abortion remains in the Crimes Act. 

After hearing the debate today I fear that abortion will remain in the Crimes Act for the time being. The women of New South Wales deserve better. If this bill is defeated today, know that those who support the right of women to make decisions about their own lives will be back here again in the future. This issue will not go away. In 2017 it is time for this Parliament to support a woman's right to choose if and when she will have a child—wherever she lives, whatever she earns. I commend the bill to the House.

HANSARD - NSW Legislative Council, 11 May 2017