In 2008, the Brumby Labor government amended Victoria’s abortion law which decriminalised the procedure. It is now 2014, and the act is once again up for debate: specifically, Section 8
This particular sub-section; requiring medical practitioners to “refer the woman to another registered health practitioner in the same regulated heath profession who is the practitioner knows does not have a conscientious objection to abortion” has been the topic of passionate debate before and after it’s passing, and in the past few weeks we have seen it thrust into the limelight once again.
In order to truly comprehend why this is, we need to look at the current Napthine state government.
In a nutshell, the Liberals are leading a deadlocked government, with a Speaker who appears to have lost confidence of at least half of the lower house. The agitator of this chaos is Geoff Shaw, former Liberal now independent MP who had criminal charges of misconduct and fraud dropped not long after this new wave of furore began.
The 2010 state election saw the Coalition gain 45 seats, with Labor receiving the other 43 seats in an 88 seat assembly. That meant that once the Coalition government appointed and provided a speaker on the floor of the House, it was left with just a one vote leeway – 44 to 43. Enter Geoff Shaw, evangelical Christian, abortion opponent and, after his resignation from the Parliamentary Liberal Party in March, the MP holding the balance of power in the lower house. We now effectively have a tie situation – 43 to 43, with Mr Shaw the deciding vote on the floor.
These past weeks have revealed that Napthine has offered to assist Shaw in the drafting of a private member’s bill that will restrict current abortion laws. The need to grab Shaw’s favour makes the offer more critical amidst the deadlock.
There’s nothing quite like the combination of religion and political expediency. How is it that the body and choice of anyone so lucky as to be born with a uterus is considered a point of negotiation by lone men? I fail to see the sense in altering the choice of so many to secure the vote of one. How desperate is the Napthine government?
This is a calculated attempt to wind back abortion rights – rights that have been fought for decades and are still fought on a daily basis every time a party tries to negotiate its way out of trouble or an individual has to face an intimidating gauntlet of protesters outside a clinic.
Let me be clear on this: it is a basic human right to access medical treatment and that should never be up for negotiation.
Prior to the 2008 decriminalisation of abortion up to 24 weeks, Victorian abortion law mirrored that of Queensland. Abortions were legal only if necessary to preserve the woman from a serious danger to her life or health and in no other instance. The preceding years to this change in legislature saw the apparently controversial topic of abortion frequently debated in public, political and policy arenas.
These arguments have been raging since the early 20th century in Victoria. They re-hash the same debates and recycle the same issues which are continually spotted throughout various points in the long history of abortion. This continuity of conceptual and symbolic dispute makes attempts to clarify current abortion legislation, policy and practice seem somewhat like a game of snakes and ladders. Just as things are looking up, we find ourselves sliding backwards, with echoes of 19th Century moralism that come back powerfully, sometimes even louder than they were before.
By the 1920s abortion was widespread and abortion services had become lucrative and well-known businesses, despite being illegal, with women from different socio-economic groups accessing abortion from abortionists of varying skill levels. Wealthy women accessed private gynaecologists, middle-class women increasingly sought the services of physicians, and working- class women utilised a traditional network of midwives. However, a police crackdown on midwives in Melbourne between 1928 and 1932 put most of the remaining skilled midwives out of business. As a result, poor women were increasingly left without access to those networks, resulting in them seeking abortion later in their pregnancy – when all other methods had failed – seeking backyard abortionists, or attempting self-abortion.
The incidence of abortion and deaths associated with abortion, particularly among poor women, steadily increased and by the mid-1930s abortion accounted for 31 per cent of maternal mortality at the Royal Women’s Hospital. The number of deaths following criminal abortion peaked between 1934 and 1941 when the maternal mortality rate had otherwise halved.
Following the decriminalisation of abortion in Victoria, there was not the great dreaded fear of an influx of people seeking abortion, instead a marked dip in abortion related death. You do the math.
Just because abortion is available, does not necessarily mean that those with a uterus have autonomy over sexuality or reproductive decision-making. The fact that abortion can be co-opted to benefit interests other than the individual’s is life-threatening at worst and morally reprehensible at best. A person’s limited ability to take control over all aspects of their life alters the legitimacy of their decision to have an abortion and justifies taking away one of the few elements of control over their life that they may have. In fact, abortion may free them to pursue actions and activities that can better their experiences in life.
Shaw wants to leave all of the hard work that activists and politicians put into the law reforms in 2008 in a burning pile of subservient shit. Napthine supports this. Of course it doesn’t matter that access to abortion is one of the conditions necessary for those with a uterus to be able to achieve economic and sexual self-determination, access to education, employment, health, and reproductive choice.
All that we can do now is wait and watch, ready to mobilise pending any deeper attack on these rights.
Back to the backyard? No way.