Editorial: US abortion row puts right to choice at risk

By The Canberra Times
Updated May 7 2022 - 1:25am, first published May 5 2022 - 7:30pm
Former prime minister John Howard. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

While the rulings of the US Supreme Court have no legal standing here if, as seems likely, it votes to overturn Roe v Wade, the right of Australian women to choose to terminate a pregnancy could once again emerge as a political issue.

This is because, unlike America, a woman's right to choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is not protected by any federal law or constitutional amendment.

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While generations of Australian women have taken access to legal abortions carried out by professional medical practitioners for granted the legislation varies widely from state to state.

It would come as a surprise to many that abortion was only fully decriminalised in South Australia last year. Western Australia was the first state to fully decriminalise the procedure in 1998. The ACT did not do this until the passage of the Crimes (Abolition of Offence of Abortion) Act in 2002.

Canberra has some of the the least restrictive abortion legislation in the country. While there is no gestational limit so long as the procedure is performed by a qualified medical doctor, the reality is the procedure is only rarely carried out later than 16 weeks into a pregnancy and then usually under exceptional circumstances.

Elsewhere gestational limits range from 16 to 24 weeks and in a majority of jurisdictions the approval of two doctors is required.

This legislative mishmash is the result of a conscious decision by a succession of federal governments not to make uniform abortion laws a priority over many decades. While Bill Shorten took a proposal for a national abortion policy to the 2019 election Labor has chosen not make this an issue in 2022. That could be because Ed Husic blamed a significant swing against him in his electorate of Chifley on what he said was misrepresentation of Labor's abortion policy.

The failure to put a national abortion policy in place is largely due to the work of Australia's active and strident ultra-conservative anti-abortion lobby. If, as is anticipated, many American states take advantage of any reversal of Roe vs Wade to limit access to abortions this group would be re-energised.

As we have already seen in this election both sides of politics, but especially the LNP, are keenly aware of the ability of religious conservatives to swing elections in key marginal seats. Labor's lukewarm stance on the protection of religious freedoms was cited as one of the factors in its 2019 defeat by the subsequent review into the loss.

In 2022 we have already seen unqualified hype about an alleged threat posed by elements of the trans community emerge as a second-order poll issue with the Morrison government allegedly using it to "dog whistle" to conservatives in western suburban and rural seats.

In the ACT the over-the-top behaviour of anti-abortion protesters picketing a city clinic resulted in the passage of legislation prohibiting them from being within 50 metres of the facility in 2016.

As late as the 1990s the Howard government was doing deals with conservative Tasmanian MP Brian Harradine which involved restricting access to medical abortions in exchange for his support for the sale of Telecom.

It is repugnant that in this day and age a woman's right to exercise control over her own body could be seen as a fit subject for political horsetrading.

That, unfortunately, could soon again be the case given the possibility there may be a fresh influx of conservative cross bench members into the Senate.

Whoever becomes Australia's federal health minister after May 21 needs to make the introduction of nationally consistent abortion laws a priority.

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