Medical and legal experts argue for the decriminalisation of abortion in NSW and Queensland in MJA article
Abortion is a criminal offence in both states unless it is deemed to be lawful – but the test for lawfulness is often unclear.
In an article published in the Medical Journal of Australia, lawyer Professor Heather Douglas and obstetrician-gynaecologist Professor Caroline de Costa argue that these laws are making it too difficult for women and girls to access abortion in a timely and safe manner.
They cite the recent case of a 12-year-old girl who sought an abortion from her local GP in Queensland and was referred to a specialist obstetrician at a public hospital.
While the girl’s specialist obstetrician, mother and social worker all agreed that a termination would be most appropriate, her case went before the Queensland Supreme Court and she was forced to undergo psychiatric assessment, with other people also introduced into the case.
The girl eventually had the abortion, but the additional consultations and court process meant that a month had elapsed since she had first requested it, which the authors say significantly increased the stress and mental trauma for the girl.
The process had also extended the gestation period, increasing the possible risks of the procedure.
Professor Douglas and Professor de Costa argue that this case carries significant implications for medical practitioners as well as parents – for example, does the decision mean that pregnant young teens and the Queensland doctors who care for them must always apply to the Supreme Court to access or provide abortion procedures?
Decriminalisation of abortion has already occurred in the ACT, Victoria and Tasmania, and there is currently debate occurring in the Northern Territory about appropriate reform.
Meanwhile, the legislation in NSW and Queensland is more than 100 years old and “well overdue for reform”, the professors argue.
Associate Professor Suzanne Belton from the Menzies School of Health Research and chairperson of Family Planning NT agrees.
She told MJA InSight that these laws are not reflective of current society or current medical practice.
“There is no need for a law to perform a good quality, medical termination of a pregnancy,” says Professor Belton.
“Doctors and nurses are perfectly capable of interacting with each other to provide evidence-based health care. What we need is a good, national guideline that reflects best practice – then we could throw the legislation away,” she told MJA InSight.
In NSW and Queensland, Bills have been developed that seek to repeal the criminalisation of abortion, although the first reading of the Queensland Bill recently failed to receive support from a state parliamentary committee.
However Independent MP Rob Pyne, who introduced the Queensland Bill, told MJA InSight that it is being put forward for a second reading.