What is the issue?
Abortion is such a sensitive issue that governments are uneasy about law-making in the field. The people who do want to make decisions about abortion are often motivated more by religious or political belief than by understanding the process or the impacts of the laws they make.
For example, many of these law-makers believe that making abortions illegal slows the abortion rate, and conversely that legalising abortion will cause more abortions. In fact, the World Health Organisation’s studies show that law has no effect on the frequency of abortions. Places where abortion is easy to access, such as northern and western Europe, actually have the lowest abortion rates worldwide.
Many also believe that abortion is a sign of modern immorality. However, abortion has been practiced as early as 1550BC in ancient Chinese, Egyptian and Greek times, even by Hippocrates, the father of western medicine. It became controversial in the 1700s under Christian teachings, and England put abortions under criminal codes for the first time in the Offences Against The Person Act of 1861. Many of Britain’s colonies followed suit and criminalised abortion. Some places still rely on that 150-year-old law.
These beliefs lead to a lot of legal confusion that no one is in a hurry to untangle. Some abortion laws are too old to be interpreted correctly today. Often there are no national laws, or nation laws conflict with the state laws. Some make abortion illegal in theory, but the practice continues without anyone being punished. Others make abortions legal, but the government or powerful individuals within a community find ways to deny women access to services.
How are abortions performed?
What these laws really affect is how the abortion is performed. In countries where abortion is legal, abortions are performed medically. Medical abortions in the first three months of pregnancy include taking the RU-486 abortion pill or surgical means where the woman’s uterus is vacuumed. After the first three months, abortion surgery is more complicated because the woman’s cervix must be expanded. These methods are considered safe by the World Health Organisation.
Non-medical abortions include the use of sharp objects or poisons. 48 per cent of abortions performed are non-medical, and these mostly occur in developing countries like Africa, where abortions are illegal. Five million women are hospitalised each year due to uncontrolled bleeding or infections from non-medical abortions, and 67 000 of these women die.
Abortion law in Oz:
Australia’s abortion laws are under the criminal code, making abortion a crime. Despite this, the federal Medicare program supports medical abortion procedures. So is it legal or not? The general practice is that abortions can be performed until the sixth month of pregnancy. Two doctors must advise the woman of the medical risks of both abortion and pregnancy, and give her access to counselling. Abortions may be performed after the sixth month if two doctors agree that the pregnancy severely worsens the mother’s health.
However, the laws are different in some states because they are based on landmark court cases. In NSW and Western Australia, abortions are available for any social, economic or medical reason before the sixth month of pregnancy. These were the most progressive states until 2008, when Victoria took the crown by removing abortion from the criminal codes altogether.
Queensland is conservative in theory, legalising abortion only if the pregnancy causes health risks to the mother, giving control to the doctor rather than the woman. However, the law has not been enacted since 1986.
South Australia and the Northern Territory are the most conservative states, where abortion is only legal if two doctors believe the pregnancy risks the woman’s mental or physical health, or the foetus is disabled. The Northern Territory only allows abortions in the first three months, and they must be performed by a reproductive specialist – a gynecologist or an obstetrician.
In Tasmania and the ACT, there have never been any court cases surrounding abortion so the law has never been interpreted. This is very confusing and results in women travelling to other states for their abortions where the law is clearer.
Abortions round the world:
The UK’s laws are national, and their system is the same as ours, except in religious Northern Ireland, where abortion is illegal except to save the mother’s life. Many Irish women travel to the UK seeking abortions.
The United States national law is more lenient, with abortions available on request. However, abortion is such a heated topic in America that the laws change frequently. Individual states can’t overturn the national law, but they can add extra requirements to make abortions less accessible.
Abortion was made legal and socially acceptable in Russia under their socialist government. Available on request for the first three months, abortions are also allowed after this time for any social or medical reasons.
Conservative countries do not necessarily mean conservative abortion laws. In China, abortion has never been criminalised, is available on request, and is offered by the government as a public service. Chinese women receive from two weeks to a month of paid sick leave for an abortion.
It’s easy to assume that countries under Islamic religious law would deny abortions. However, the Islamic holy book, the Quran, does not list abortion as a sin. In Saudi Arabia, abortions are available to maintain the woman’s physical or mental health. A panel of three doctors must approve, and the woman and her husband must give written consent.
Countries where abortion is available on request or for social and economic reasons are considered ‘high access’ by the UN. Countries which only offer abortions to prevent physical harm or to save the life of the mother are ‘low access’ countries. In all countries around the world, abortion is legal to save the mother’s life.
How do our laws affect Australian women?
Medical and social studies indicate that Australian women in city areas have high access to abortion services, but women from rural areas often have to pay for travel, or can be disadvantaged by local doctors who are nervous or confused about whether the practice is legal.
Australia’s access to abortions as a nation is fairly high. No matter what your stance on the issue is, what we should push for is a national approach to abortion, so that doctors and women know for sure what their options are.
How do I know this?
World Health Organisation, ‘Facts on Induced Abortion Worldwide’ www.who.int/reproductivehealth/unsafe_abortion/induced_abortion_worldwide.pdf viewed October 1, 2008.
United Nations, ‘Abortion Policies – a Global Review.’ www.un.org/esa/population/publications/abortion/ , viewed October 1, 2008.
Australian Parliamentary Website, ‘Abortion Law in Australia’ www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/rp/1998-99/99rp01.html , viewed September 30, 2008.
Parliament of Victoria Website, ‘Abortion Law Reform Bill’ www.legislation.vic.gov.au/domino/Web_Notes/LDMS/PubPDocs.nsf/ ee665e366dcb6cb0ca256da400837f6b/3F1389267C60C2F4CA2574AA00087950/$FILE/561293bi1.pdf , viewed September 30, 2008.
Kirkby M, ‘Abortion rights down under’ www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12222515 , viewed September 30 2008.