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Decriminalisation and the noisy minority

By Myfanwy Evans - posted Friday, 27 July 2007

The purpose of decriminalising abortion in Victoria is not to allow for an increase in the amount of terminations that are undertaken each year, despite what anti-abortion lobbyists would have us believe. Rather, Labor MP Candy Broad’s proposed private member’s bill is simply about women’s rights, and about changing laws that continue to legislate negatively and paternalistically towards women. It’s about acknowledging abortion as a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue. And it’s about updating legislation that reflects 19th century British laws, laws that have long since been rewritten in the UK.

The apparent hype surrounding this bill seems to have been grossly overdrawn, as the practice of abortion is not nearly as controversial as it is repeatedly portrayed as being. According to Women’s Health Victoria, Victorians opposed to abortion represent only 9 per cent of the population, yet they are an aggressive and vocal minority who manage to project a presence much larger than that of their own.

They also have access to large pools of resources, providing them with an exaggerated visibility as they picket termination clinics, invade mailboxes and fund $34,000 advertisements in prominent newspapers. In turn, they are able to intimidate politicians by hijacking the issue and framing it in archaic terms. In the current discussion about decriminalisation, anti-abortionists seem once again to have been able to dominate what is more than their democratic share of the debate.


Yet in 2002, Labor MLA Wayne Berry deflated the illusory size of the “right-to-life” movement when he successfully passed a private member’s bill to decriminalise abortion in the ACT, and the majority of the community stood in applaud of his dedication. While anti-abortion lobbyists had waged an expensive and boisterous campaign against Berry, his primary vote went up as a result of his decriminalisation policy.

Scare mongering arguments about rising termination rates that presently surround the debate on law change are not hard to discredit. We only need to look to the ACT, the only state or territory in Australia where abortion has been decriminalised, to see that there have been no significant changes in abortion practices beyond women and doctors feeling more secure safe and secure under the new system.

Indeed, the mere idea that women will suddenly be rushing to access late term terminations once abortion has been decriminalised verges on the ridiculous. As Leslie Cannold from Reproductive Choice Australia says, “tell me about this woman who purposely continues to have a pregnancy going when she doesn’t actually want it, only to have to go through the trauma of a late-term abortion? It doesn’t even make any sense, on top of how offensive it is.”

Yet some politicians continue to discuss abortions as if they are alluring desserts for gluttonous women to devour. Premier Steve Bracks, Health Minister Bronwyn Pike and Treasurer John Brumby are among those who have expressed reservations about removing the old laws without imposing new restrictions to “safeguard” against women’s unfettered access of abortion.

New restrictions, such as the proposed plan to transfer the Menhennitt ruling into the Health Act, undermine the very point of decriminalisation. Decriminalisation should mark the beginning of a new political era, which acknowledges terminations are an extremely private matter and a decision belonging to women in consultation with their doctors, not to the state. The decision to terminate is never one that is taken lightly by women, and it involves a traumatic, invasive and painful procedure, not something that women actively seek.

Decriminalisation is about acknowledgement, it is about moving away from ideas that question women’s moral intentions and place the state in a watchdog position over women’s reproductive choices. Decriminalisation has long awaited the courage of a politician like Candy Broad to push for a conscience vote and stand unreservedly in the face of the political pressures this type of debate inevitably generates.


In the meantime, pro-choice Victorians need to match the noise that will be made by the anti-abortion minority. Politicians will need the public’s support to unite across party in the approaching conscience vote, in this historic opportunity to inspire a democratic result for Victoria’s pro-choice majority.

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About the Author

Myfanwy Evans is a final year journalism student at the University of Melbourne.

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