Why the hell isn't abortion decriminalised in NSW?

We asked Greens MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi about the bill she introduced to decriminalise abortion in New South Wales –and why it was voted down last month in the NSW parliament. By Mia Abrahams

Many women probably aren’t aware that laws on abortion limit their rights in Australia. Why is abortion law reform still so essential?

In NSW abortion is a criminal offence in the Crimes Act. The ‘lawfulness’ of abortion hangs precariously on the interpretation of the law by a district court in the 1970s, when the law was amended to consider abortion lawful if the pregnancy threatened a woman’s life, physical or mental health. Even then it’s not the woman making the decision. This is not good enough as access is still limited, privatised and expensive— especially for regional and rural women. Most people only find out about the criminality of abortion if they or someone close to them requires this reproductive health procedure.

The uncertainty surrounding abortion law means it has become a confusing, grey area, placing women and medical practitioners in difficult territory and at risk of prosecution and persecution. Many doctors do not perform pregnancy terminations because of this risk. Abortion law reform is essential to clarify the law.

Why is the government so out of step with public opinion on abortion?

When I came to NSW Parliament, I was shocked to find out that there had never been an attempt to modernise abortion laws in this state – especially when states all around the country were and are doing so. The Abortion Law Reform Bill 2016 was the first ever bill introduced into NSW parliament to decriminalise abortion and create safe access zones around reproductive health clinics. It is a sad and astounding fact that in 2017 abortion still sits in Division 12 of the NSW Crimes Act 1900 and women are stopped from making decisions about their own reproductive health.

I think this has been an issue both Liberal and Labor parties have ignored because abortion rights are still considered controversial in their party rooms as they are beholden to conservative interests.

There is overwhelming community support for this reform: 73% of people in NSW want abortion decriminalised and 81% want safe access zones outside reproductive health clinics.

Across the country, states and territories have decriminalised abortion, the ACT did it in 2002, Victoria in 2008, and Tasmania in 2013 and, most recently, the Northern Territory. NSW and Queensland are actually the only states or territories that have criminal laws that govern abortion which are completely untouched. People in these states want these archaic laws gone.

What can we do to support this campaign to decriminalise abortion and ensure that all Australian women, regardless of location or income, have access to abortion?

I’ve been travelling across the state in many rural and regional areas including Wagga, Albury, Bega and Byron where access is a real issue and the few clinics that do exist have regular groups of so-called protestors harassing staff and patients. This is an absolute disgrace and it’s unacceptable. Please write to or phone your MPs in both houses of Parliament and let them know how important this reform is. People can go to www.end12.org.au to take action as well.

What do you see as the continuing effect of the Trump presidency on Australian politics, particularly in regards to his anti-Muslim sentiment?

When I migrated to Australia almost 25 years ago with my husband and one-year old son, we did feel welcome. This is where I have studied, worked, where my children have grown up and where I now have the privilege of representing the people of NSW in parliament. Our experience living in the small coastal town of Port Macquarie was also positive. I think the slower pace of life in the country does give people the opportunity to get to know each other better and negative preconceptions about differences fall away.

Of course, it was not all an easy journey, it never is for people of colour. While we would experience discrimination, we did not face a rising tide of racism and hate towards migrants and especially Muslims, but that is all changing and unfortunately something that is becoming more and more mainstream.

I, and my staff, have to deal with many messages over phone, email and social media that are incredibly and increasingly racist and hostile. We receive many emails from people who have experienced racism. It is no doubt confronting, but we can’t just blame Trump. I was not really surprised by the political resurgence of Pauline Hanson and One Nation in Australia. There has been dog-whistling on migrants and refugees by Governments of both persuasions for many years which has legitimised the voices of racism.

Australian governments have, over many years now, not only failed to meet their international obligations with respect to human rights and fair treatment of refugees, but abuse of asylum seekers, including women and children, goes on in Nauru and Manus Island on our watch. All of these contribute to making racism acceptable in mainstream society.