I am so pleased to make a contribution to debate on the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019. Based on comprehensive legislation from Victoria and Queensland, the bill decriminalises abortion in New South Wales by abolishing the common law offences relating to abortion in the New South Wales Crimes Act 1900 and establishing a framework for lawful and unlawful terminations. It allows for terminations of pregnancies up to 22 weeks and provides for terminations after that point under special circumstances. The bill requires doctors who express a conscientious objection to abortion to refer patients to a doctor who does not object, and it institutes a new offence for performing unlawful abortions. Finally, the bill states that a woman does not commit an offence if she performs a termination on herself.
The eyes of Australia are on this Parliament today. Under sections 82 to 84 of the Crimes Act 1900 a woman can be jailed for up to 10 years for procuring an abortion. As the Australian Medical Association has made perfectly clear, the current law is not appropriate for either patients or doctors. Since Judge Levine's ruling inR v Wald, abortions in New South Wales have existed in a legal grey zone and have been performed in licensed private clinics when a doctor determines they are necessary to prevent serious harm to a woman's physical or mental health. New South Wales is the last State or territory where abortion remains in the criminal code. There can be no doubt that Australia is watching us today because with this bill a painful chapter in our history ends. I thank the member for Sydney for bringing the bill to our Parliament and for his absolute commitment and resolve to getting this done.
I was moved by his second reading speech, particularly his touching dedication to his late grandmother. It is a story that resonates with so many women in our community, some of whom are here today to witness debate on this historic bill. Our mothers, aunts and grandmothers have fought for reproductive rights and we carry their torch with us today. I am so proud to have worked alongside the member for Sydney, the Hon. Penny Sharpe and the Hon. Trevor Khan in drafting this bill. I am proud to be co-sponsoring the bill today with 15 members from five political parties and independents—a first for the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. I thank the Minister for Health and Medical Research for his guidance and support, and the Premier, the Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business, for their early indications of support for the bill.
I thank the Human Rights Law Centre and the Australian Medical Association [AMA] for their assistance in the drafting process and in encouraging support for the bill. I am deeply humbled by the dedication and passion of the many activists and feminists, the many legal, health and women's organisations, who have fought for this reform and brought us to this point today. I will speak more on that contribution later, but I assert from the outset that we stand here today on their shoulders, because of their hard work and because of their commitment to getting this done. Finally, I also thank the many inner west residents who contacted me about this issue. Overwhelmingly, they expressed support for the bill, for decriminalising abortion in this State and for a woman's right to choose. I also acknowledge those who have contacted me to express their concerns or opposition. I know this issue is important to them and although we disagree, I assure them that I have considered their views, respect their right to hold them and thank them for respectfully sharing them with me.
For 119 years New South Wales women have fought to exercise fundamental reproductive rights in the face of an unfair law. Historically, they have done so under a cloud of shame and secrecy, sometimes putting their lives at risk for unlawful abortions. In more recent times, women have sought legal abortions but feared the repercussions within a grey area of the law, often navigating social stigma or judgement as they do. Sections 82 to 84 of the Crimes Act 1900 measure a woman's worth by her womb, valuing the life of an unborn fetus over her emotional, financial and physical wellbeing. It ignores the many circumstances that bring women to seek an abortion and is an anachronistic, outdated and, frankly, insulting approach to what is a deeply personal and incredibly complex decision. There is no single reason why a woman seeks an abortion. Our lives are rich, complicated and filled with many unforeseen circumstances, including unwanted pregnancy.
One woman has written to me:
I was living in Coffs Harbour. I was kicked out of home. I found out I was pregnant and sought refuge in a women's shelter. They helped take me to Queensland for an abortion. I was 16. I am grateful that I was able to do this, as I was unable to look after myself, let alone a child. If I had stayed pregnant, the small town I lived in would have crucified me. My life would have been vastly different without that assistance.
Another woman has shared her story:
I've had three abortions and have never regretted a single one ... I have recently been diagnosed with bipolar and BPD [borderline personality disorder]; and spent my 20s extremely unwell and unmedicated. If I had had to raise three children whilst being that unwell, it would not have been a life I would want for anyone, particularly them. This service is necessary and a fundamental right.
Specifically, in relation to late-term abortion, I note that Ann Brassil, Director of Family Planning NSW, recently said:
When I think about the women in this situation, I think of women who each had their own very complex story to tell. Mothers who were looking forward to bringing a sibling into the family but had their hopes crushed by a devastating foetal diagnosis, women fighting health battles who were told continuing the pregnancy could put their own life at risk and sometimes women whose abusive partners had stopped earlier access to care.
There is no single reason why a woman seeks an abortion; there is no simple reason. Our laws should respect the complexity of our lives and not criminalise actions often taken out of compassion and with deep consideration. I turn briefly to the provisions in the bill. The bill allows for women to seek terminations when up to 22 weeks pregnant if the procedure is performed by a registered doctor. The bill allows for terminations after 22 weeks where two doctors consider that the procedure should be performed given the medical, physical, psychological and social circumstances. Where a woman's life is at risk after 22 weeks, or if the life of another fetus is at risk, a single doctor will be able to perform the procedure. It is a false narrative by those who oppose a woman's right to choose that this legislation will see a rise in abortions after 22 weeks. In reality, late-term abortions are rare—95 per cent of abortions take place before 14 weeks.
The bill provides a clear framework under which abortions would occur after 22 weeks. It notes that this is the period where families may learn of serious fetal abnormalities and requires the sign-off of two registered doctors, considering: the person's relevant medical circumstances; the person's current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances; and the relevant professional medical practitioner standards and guidelines. This is hardly late-term abortion on demand. As others have noted, the requirement for two doctors to sign-off on a procedure may represent a stricter regime than currently exists in the "grey area" of the current law. The bill requires doctors with a conscientious objection to disclose their objection and to refer their patient to another doctor, responding to the concerns raised through consultation with doctors, nurses and the AMA. Whilst I personally do not believe that a doctor's personal moral beliefs should impact their practice, I am resolved that this provision allows doctors to exercise a conscientious objection without limiting a woman's access to treatment.
Critically, the bill creates a new criminal offence in the Criminal Code for anyone who performs or assists to perform a termination without authorisation—with a maximum penalty of seven years. We must never return to the dark days of backyard abortions, where women in this State risked their lives in makeshift clinics run by unqualified hacks, who oftentimes preyed on vulnerable women with few options. The bill explicitly states that a woman does not commit an offence if she performs a termination on herself. Opponents of the bill suggest that these laws are rarely used; however, in 2017 a woman was prosecuted for allegedly taking pills she had bought online with the intention of inducing a miscarriage. Keeping abortion in the Crimes Act treats a core component of women's health care as second-class and robs women of the right to decide what happens to their bodies. It also perpetuates a culture of shame around abortion that is, frankly, ill-informed, dangerous and unjust. [Extension of time]
Last year we saw the historic passage of the Public Health Amendment (Safe Access to Reproductive Health Clinics) Bill 2018, which placed a 150-metre buffer zone to prevent those entering a clinic from being abused or harassed by anti-choice protestors. These so-called "curbside counsellors" attempt to manipulate, guilt and shame women out of a deeply personal decision. There was widespread support for that bill because the community agrees that women seeking reproductive health services should be able to do so free from harassment, whether they are seeking an abortion, contraception or any other treatment. That bill was only part of the job. We must now remove abortion from the Crimes Act to ensure women are afforded dignity and respect when making medical decisions affecting their own bodies. Generations of women in this State have campaigned for reform, including many in the NSW Labor Party and the union movement. I consider many of them my mentors and inspiration—women such as Penny Sharpe, Tanya Plibersek, Mary O'Sullivan, Meredith Burgmann, the late Ann Symonds, Carmel Tebbutt, Verity Firth and countless others. Young women in our party also continue to inspire me, women such as Claire Pullen, Rosie Ryan, Briony Roelandts, Charlotte Kennedy-Cox, Chloe Smith and many others.
I acknowledge the incredible work of the Women's Electoral Lobby, Labor for Choice, Our Bodies Our Choices and the NSW Pro-Choice Alliance. They have been on the streets and in this Parliament lobbying for years to remove abortion from the Crimes Act. This bill is a testament to their work and their commitment to the cause. There is more work to be done: Even if this historic bill passes today, women in regional communities will continue to face obstacles to treatment and Indigenous women and women from culturally and linguistically diverse [CALD] communities will continue to struggle to access culturally appropriate information and services. Women across the State will continue to face financial hurdles, with procedures in private clinics costing upwards of $1,000. Terminations should be available in every public hospital in New South Wales.
I am a feminist and always have been proudly and unapologetically pro-choice. Fighting for a woman's right to choose is one of the reasons I stand here today as an elected representative. I believe in my heart that women and their doctors are best placed to make decisions about their reproductive health; in fact, I think they are the only ones who should make those decisions. The whole of Australia is watching this Parliament today because as the last State to retain abortion in the criminal code, today's vote ends a painful chapter in our history. They are watching too because they want us to set aside our political banners and work together to achieve this historic reform. I implore my colleagues to support this bill and to get this done for the women of this State who have shared their stories and for the countless women who are placing their faith and hope in us today.