The Queensland Law Reform Commission has called for the public to make submissions to its review into modernising the state's laws relating to abortion.
The terms of reference specifically require the commission to recommend how Queensland should amend its laws relating to the termination of pregnancy to:
- remove terminations of pregnancy that are performed by a duly registered medical practitioner(s) from the Criminal Code sections 224 (Attempts to procure abortion), 225 (The like by women with child), and 226 (Supplying drugs or instruments to procure abortion); and
- provide clarity in the law in relation to terminations of pregnancy in Queensland.
Here's everything you need to know.
What is the current status of abortion in Queensland?
Abortion is still a crime in Queensland.
This doesn't mean abortions don't happen there, as the procedure is lawful to "prevent serious danger to the woman's physical or mental health".
Australian courts have developed a doctrine, based on necessity and proportionality, under which termination of pregnancy by a medical practitioner, with the consent of the woman, is "lawful".
It is estimated that half of all pregnancies in Australia are unplanned, and that half of those are terminated. It is also estimated that between a quarter and a third of Australian women will experience a termination of pregnancy
There is no formal national monitoring of the number of terminations of pregnancy in Australia but it has been estimated that between 10,000 and 14,000 terminations are performed each year in Queensland, with most performed in the first trimester of pregnancy.
Queensland public hospitals provide limited termination services. Those terminations performed in public hospitals are usually carried out on the basis of fetal abnormality or maternal illness or complications.
Most women pay upfront at a private clinic for a termination.
Medical abortions through a GP in Queensland cost from $350 to $580 upfront before Medicare rebates, with costs as high as $790 for clinics in Rockhampton or Townsville, and as low as $40 at a Cairns clinic.
For surgical abortions the cost is from $400 to $760 for up to 12 weeks and from $810 to $1470 for 12–14 weeks, depending on where the woman lives.
Why is a law reform commission looking into this and not elected parliamentarians?
In February independent Cairns MP Rob Pyne withdrew bills to decriminalise abortion in Queensland a day before they were due to be debated in parliament after then Liberal National Party opposition leader Tim Nicholls vowed that “every single member” of his party would vote down the legislation.
The legislation would have failed, as Labor MPs had been given a conscience vote on the issue and other independents had indicated their opposition to abortion.
The bills were referred to the Queensland Law Reform Commission — which is expected to report early next year — and the Labor government has vowed to "modernise" the state's abortion laws.
Is it as simple as removing abortion from the criminal code?
Anyone making a submission will need to consider the following questions, which will form the basis of any legislation:
- Who should be permitted to perform, or assist in performing, lawful terminations of pregnancy?
- Should a woman be criminally responsible for the termination of her own pregnancy?
- Should there be a gestational limit for a lawful termination of pregnancy? (In other states terminations are only lawful up to a certain number of weeks.)
- Should there be other grounds for a lawful termination of pregnancy? For example medical circumstances or physical, psychological and social circumstances, a risk of fetal abnormality.
- Should there be a gestational limit or limits for a lawful termination of pregnancy?
- Should there be any requirements in relation to offering counselling for the woman?
- Should it be unlawful to harass, intimidate or obstruct: (a) a woman who is considering, or who has undergone, a termination of pregnancy; or (b) a person who performs or assists, or who has performed or assisted in performing, a lawful termination of pregnancy?
- Should it be an offence to make or publish a recording of another person entering or leaving, or trying to enter or leave, premises where termination of pregnancy services are performed, unless the recorded person has given their consent?
Why would Queensland's law need modernising?
Most jurisdictions in Australia have amended their laws to decriminalise termination of pregnancy in particular circumstances, except for NSW and Queensland.
Women experiencing unplanned pregnancies across the sunshine state have been turned away from hospitals and obstructed by their GPs; had to buy plane tickets to procure an abortion; and experienced harassment outside clinics, as there is no law stopping protesters from gathering.
Practitioners believe barriers to access are unable to be removed while the procedure remains in criminal law.
Over the past two years pro-choice counselling service Children by Choice in Queensland has provided over $225,000 in total to more than 550 women for abortion and contraception access in the form of grants, loans, and support from other nonprofits, and negotiated discounts from abortion providers.
"We literally sell tea towels and tote bags to raise money for abortions," Marsh told BuzzFeed News.
When the organisation has "run out of other options", Marsh calls for donations via the Children by Choice Facebook page.
What do Queenslanders reckon?
Essential Research polling showed in February 76% of Queenslanders believed the state's abortion laws should be changed.
ReachTEL polling released just before the state's election last month found 1 in 2 Queenslanders would be unwilling to support their preferred candidate if the candidate wanted abortion to remain a criminal offence.
More than 150 candidates signed a pro-choice candidate pledge from independent lobby group Fair Agenda in the lead-up to the vote.
But the anti-abortion voice is loud and was definitely heard during the election campaign.
Anti-abortion lobby group Cherish Life targeted voters with unsolicited phone calls, letterbox drops, and emails that claimed the election was the "most important" ever because a re-elected Labor government would allow "extreme Victorian-style abortion laws up to birth with no restrictions and no protections for mother or child".
Cherish Life was also responsible for a raft of misleading radio, newspaper, and Facebook advertisements in the lead-up to the scheduled vote on Pyne's abortion law reform bills earlier this year that made similar claims.
In the recent state election, the LNP unsuccessfully ran a candidate Kara Thomas who – until May this year, according to her LinkedIn profile – was also the director of research, policy, and advocacy at Cherish Life Queensland.
What kind of responses did the previous inquiries into Pyne's legislation get?
Last time there were public submissions on this topic, doctors' professional bodies spoke in favour of decriminalising abortion, especially abortion providers who no longer wanted to work in the shadow of the law.
The Queensland Branch of the Australian Medical Association told the inquiry their members supported legal and safe abortion, and believed the state's current laws, which criminalise terminations of pregnancy, were a barrier to a doctor’s first duty — best patient care. This was echoed by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Queensland Nurses Union, which has more than 53,000 members.
There were some very interesting points made by members of the public who opposed to legalised abortion.
One person claimed a woman's body was property to be leased by a fetus and an abortion was akin to breaking a rental agreement. A particularly concerned Queenslander said that "sex education" by the Safe Schools Coalition led to abortion. This submission said legalised abortion was equivalent to slavery.
Another claimed pregnant women were committing "murder" so they could afford Foxtel.
One submission even suggested "The Moonlight Sonata" might never have existed if Beethoven had been aborted.
"What about a woman who has tuberculosis and already has four children," it said. "The first child is blind, the second child has died, the third child is deaf, and the fourth child also has tuberculosis.
"Her husband is unsupportive and regularly drinking, and her grandmother is an alcoholic. Given the bill’s proposal, this would more than suffice for reason to have an abortion. If so, then you have just killed Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the greatest composers who has ever lived."
BuzzFeed News will follow the submissions to the law reform commission review.
Anything else I need to know if I want to make a submission?
The deadline for submissions is 13 February 2018.