BY WENDY BACON
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian caved in to pressure from opponents of abortion this week delaying a final vote in the Legislative Council until September.
This is a bitter disappointment to hundreds of Pro-Choice supporters who rallied outside NSW Parliament on Tuesday morning, calling for the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill to be passed this week without further amendments. The mood was jubilant. After 119 years, victory seemed very close.
Their confidence seems justified. The bill easily passed the Legislative Assembly by 59 to 31. A majority of upper house Legislative Council MPs had indicated they would pass the bill. (Update: In fact, shortly after this story was published, the bill passed 26 votes to 15 although some MPs have indicated that they will move amendments.)
But while the bill’s supporters were rallying outside parliament, conservative Liberal MP Tanya Davies, Shooters Fishers’ and Farmers Party MLC Robert Borsak and other disgruntled conservatives were pressuring Premier Gladys Berejiklian to delay the vote on amendments. Before the Upper House debate had even begun, she agreed to delay the vote until mid-September. This cave-in leaves Berejiklian looking weak and vulnerable as a leader, surrounded by conflict amongst her own Coalition MPs. It delivered at least a short-term political victory to socially conservative campaigners who are led by religious leaders, almost all of whom are male patriarchs. This includes the Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher who used his weekly newsletter to exhort Catholic school parents to sign petitions and join the campaign against the bill. These tactics are aimed at amplifying conflict and confusion to delay and obstruct the passage of the bill.
The ProChoice Alliance of more than 80 organisations reacted quickly. Alliance Chair Wendy McCarthy described the delay as a “perverse and ridiculous waste of time” that left the community in an “absurd situation where the government is ignoring the experts – the doctors, the women’s health organisations, the lawyers and the domestic violence experts who have all endorsed this bill. Instead, they are being swayed by a few hysterical voices who have no interest or expertise in caring for women, and do not reflect the majority view of the community.”
There is no doubt that the overwhelming weight of medical, legal and other expert opinion supports the bill in its current form. This includes the Australian Medical Association (AMA), the NSW Bar Association, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG), Family Planning NSW, the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties and the Human Rights Centre.
But this does not matter to the opponents of the bill who not only base their objections on religious faith but spread false information about the bill and the impacts of abortion. For example, they repeatedly claim the bill allows abortion on demand right up to birth, or as they put it, “abortion to birth”. One MP even referred to this as “the lawful use of the death penalty.” They choose to ignore evidence given by senior medical practitioners to a Legislative Council Inquiry last week that late terms abortions are rare and currently occur in complex medical and psychosocial situations after great consideration and under the supervision of multi-disciplinary teams. The bill provides that after 22 weeks, terminations would only occur in public hospitals and with the approval of two doctors with specialist knowledge.
However, the endless repetition of lies makes for a successful ‘fake news’ campaign. MPs have received thousands of letters and phone calls that repeat scaremongering claims. The anti-choice movement mobilised a huge rally of thousands in Martin Place on Tuesday night. They were joined by a hysterical Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce who seized a political opportunity to place himself at centre stage despite the fact that a number of NSW National MPs including Trevor Khan are strong advocates of the bill.
The real danger now is that further amendments could be inserted in the bill that would make it unacceptable to the medical profession and entrench discrimination against groups of women. In other words, there is a risk that what should be a big step forward ends up creating an even more difficult situation than currently exists. A large amount of evidence has been presented to parliament in speeches, testimony and submissions that while women in urban areas with economic resources can access safe abortion services, women lacking financial resources, victims of violent relationships and women in rural areas do not have equal access to terminations. Almost all the amendments being suggested would increase these obstacles. This is why opponents of the bill who know decriminalisation is a lost cause are now focussed on amendments.
Pro-choice medical and legal experts told the Inquiry that they were prepared to accept several amendments that were included in the bill passed by the Legislative Assembly. These include an amendment requiring ‘informed consent’, which health professionals pointed out is part of all ethical medical practice.
But they warn against further amendments because they would discriminate against women and undermine the reform. They would also discourage doctors from participating in providing abortion services. This includes a ban on any provision of abortion for the purposes of gender selection. This amendment was rejected by the Legislative Assembly which instead passed an amendment that requires the Minister for Health to report on a review of gender selection abortions in NSW. All major women’s health organisations have argued that there is currently no evidence that such a practice occurs.
Greens spokesperson for Women’s Rights, Newtown MP Jenny Leong, who is one of 15 co-sponsors of the bill, told City Hub “There are people – overwhelmingly men – who don’t believe that people – overwhelmingly women – should make choices about their own bodies. They believe it should remain a crime for a woman to procure an abortion,” Jenny Leong, Member for Newtown said.
“These people are a small minority – but they have loud voices and they have been using dirty tactics to try to sabotage the passage of this reform. The one that stands out as the lowest of the low was the suggestion that certain migrant communities would use abortion as a form of sex selection. This flimsy argument is based more on racism than on evidence,” Ms Leong said.
Am inclusion of a ban on gender selection has been supported by nearly all opponents of the bill who have spoken in the Legislative Council so far this week.
AMA Vice President Dr Danielle McMullen told the Legislative Council Inquiry last week that she considered the discussion around the amendments to be ‘offensive’ because much of it implied that doctors couldn’t do their jobs properly. She said that the amendment regarding gender selection would “cause great concern” because it would potentially make doctors providing abortions after nine weeks “party to a crime.” and require them to be “mind readers” to ensure that no crime was being committed.
Anti-choice campaigners referred to a study concerning male-biased sex ratios in Australian migrant populations published in 2018 by La Trobe University. “What they don’t say is that the study noted that there can be no conclusions drawn as to whether sex-selective abortions occur. It also recommended that the most effective way to address any concern about male-biased ratios was to reinforce social policies that tackle gender discrimination in all its forms,” said Leong.
RANZCOG president and specialist obstetrician Dr Vijay Roach, who has delivered 6000 babies over 20 years, responding to the suggestion at the Legislative Committee Inquiry last week that a clause could be inserted into the bill to ban gender selection abortion said, “Frankly, that is offensive…. I think we should add in the fact that racial profiling is absolutely offensive and is not something that this country or Parliament should accept. This would end up precluding people from seeking care.”
Family Planning NSW CEO Adjunct Professor Ann Brassil said delay showed contempt for women and the health staff who worked with them. “Politicians are dragging out a debate that the rest of Australia …has long since put to bed. These groups garnering for extra time and perverse amendments, which seek to block access and build obtrusive restrictions, are openly staunch opponents of abortion. There is no scenario in which opponents are ever going to support abortion as healthcare for women. We need the NSW Parliament to put the needs of women and their healthcare ahead of this despicable lobbying.”
Let’s hope that all MPs who support the bill hold firm and are not bullied into further amendments. Premier Berejiklian’s decision to delay is frustrating, risky and weak. Women have waited for 119 years for women to wrest control of their bodies from patriarchs. My generation has been pushing for reform for 40 years. We can wait another four weeks – but to quote an old 1970s feminist song, ‘Don’t be too polite girls.’ We should never underestimate the determination of religious conservatives to fight for control over women’s bodies or for politicians to cynically exploit this issue for the purposes of other political powerplays.
Wendy Bacon was previously the Professor of Journalism at the University of Technology Sydney. She first campaigned for the decriminalisation of abortion in 1969.