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RIGHTS-AUSTRALIA: Abortion Decriminalised But Stays Controversial

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Nov 24 2008 (IPS) - While pro-choice groups have welcomed the recent decriminalisation of abortion in Victoria – Australia’s second most-populous state, where around 20,000 abortions are believed to be performed annually – anti-abortionists have vowed to continue opposing termination of pregnancies.

“I see it as a real victory for common sense, for one, but I also see it as a way in which we’ve taken another step towards moving away from the paternalistic framework that was governing termination in Victoria,” says Dr. Leslie Cannold, spokesperson for Pro Choice Victoria (PCV), a group of individuals and organisations campaigning for legal access to abortion for all women.

In what was a hotly-contested and controversial decision by the Victorian state parliament in October, legislators voted to decriminalise the practise. Previously, a termination could be undertaken legally if a pregnancy represented a serious danger to the woman’s life or health.

But with the removal of abortion from the state’s Crimes Act, women can now freely choose to terminate a pregnancy up to 24 weeks gestation while late-term abortions require the consent of two doctors.

Subsequently, Victoria now has some of the most liberal abortion laws in the country – individual Australian states and territories are responsible for their own abortion legislation – with only the Australian Capital Territory, which legalised abortion in 2002, regarded as being more liberal.

Cannold told IPS that the change acknowledges that the best-placed people to make decisions regarding terminations are women themselves. It “is really about emphasising women’s full capacity as citizens and human beings to make important and necessary decisions about their own lives and their own bodies,” she says.

October’s vote by legislators was the culmination of more than a year of efforts to change the state’s abortion laws. The Labor state government appointed the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) – a government-funded body which develops, monitors and coordinates law reform in the state – in September 2007 to the task of providing advice on clarifying the law and legalising abortion.

The VLRC’s final report – for which over 500 submissions were received – was tabled in parliament in May. But while the commission’s report provided options for state legislators regarding the legalising of abortion, a prominent civil rights lawyer has argued that amendments were required regardless in order to conform to international human rights agreements to which Australia is a signatory.

The president of Liberty Victoria – the state’s leading civil liberties organisation, which is also part of PCV – Julian Burnside, said last year that reproductive choice is implicit in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Australia, which ratified CEDAW in 1983 – the United Nations General Assembly adopted the convention in 1979 – should reform its laws accordingly, wrote Burnside in an opinion piece in The Age newspaper.

He argued that Article 16 of CEDAW – which states that parties to the convention “shall ensure, on the basis of equality of men and women…the same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights” – requires abortion to be legal.

But while pro-choice groups have welcomed the decriminalisation of abortion in Victoria, pro-life advocates remain outraged.

Anti-abortion organisation ‘Right To Life Australia’ describes the legislation as a “tragedy”.

“Although this was a major, major setback for the right-to-life movement, we will not cease our opposition to abortion and other attacks on human life,” says the group on its website.

Denise Cameron, a prominent anti-abortionist and president of Pro-Life Victoria, says that legalising abortion means “there is no protection anymore for unborn babies.”

“It’s abortion up to birth, that’s what the significance of it is,” argues Cameron, who regards the termination of pregnancies as the killing of “the most innocent of all human beings.”

“We recognise unborn children from the moment of conception or from fertilisation, that they are part of a continuum. You’re an embryo, you’re a foetus, you’re a baby, you’re a toddler, you’re a teenager, you’re an adult, you’re a senior citizen,” she says.

Cameron told IPS that embryos should be afforded human rights. “Just because you’re in your mother’s womb, you don’t forfeit the right to life,” she argues.

Leslie Cannold, however, has a different perspective. “You’re talking about a very early human life and something that has a lot of importance to the people who are going to become its parents if it is to be born.”

“I think those people are the best people to make a decision about what is going to happen [to the embryo or foetus] because a decision does need to be made if a pregnancy is unwanted or it’s problematic,” opines the pro-choice campaigner.

But Cameron is also concerned that there will be an increase in abortions following its decriminalisation. “I can’t see how there won’t be more abortions,” she says, citing the situation in the United Kingdom, which saw a rapid increase in annual terminations in the years following its legalisation in 1967, as an example.

However, Cannold points out the VLRC “was not allowed to make suggestions to the government about how to change the law that would, in any way, change current practise or provision.”

Yet despite the law reform, the issue of abortion appears to be far from resolved, with doctors among those voicing their displeasure.

Part of the new legislation requires health practitioners who have a conscientious objection to “refer the woman to another registered health practitioner in the same regulated health profession who the practitioner knows does not have a conscientious objection to abortion.”

A group of medical practitioners called Doctors in Conscience Against Abortion Bill have warned that some doctors may move interstate or go into early retirement in response to this clause, while Catholic Health Australia says that independent legal advice has indicated that the new legislation may breach the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.

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