Australia

Migrant women's groups commend voting down of 'racist' amendment to NSW abortion bill

Protesters hold placards during the Our Body Our Choice march in Sydney. Source: AAP

A controversial amendment to the NSW abortion bill came under fire for promoting racial profiling.

Groups representing migrant women in Australia have praised the voting down of a controversial amendment to NSW's proposed abortion bill that would have explicitly banned abortions on the basis of gender selection.

The amendment had been labelled "racist" and a "dog-whistle" on the basis it specifically targeted Indian and Chinese communities as responsible for using abortion as a means of gender selection in a bid to have male children.

A joint statement released ahead of the debate on Wednesday, signed by six advocacy groups for multicultural women, said the proposed amendment risked "introducing racial profiling and amplifying discrimination in our healthcare system".

"The amendment will likely weaken the trust women from migrant and refugee backgrounds have in our healthcare system and have the potentially catastrophic result of women choosing not to access healthcare when they need to," the statement continued.

"There is no evidence to suggest that sex selective terminations occur in Australia; the amendment only serves to target women from migrant and refugee backgrounds, who already deal with significant stigma around reproductive health and experience poorer health access."

Despite staunch arguments in favour of the amendment from its supporters, the proposed change was defeated in the state's upper house, 26 votes to 15, late on Wednesday evening in a move celebrated by multicultural advocates. 

Moved by NSW Minister for Finance Damien Tudehope, the amendment aimed to stop medical practitioners from performing an abortion on a person if they know, or ought to have known, that it "is being performed for the purposes of sex selection", or face six months imprisonment.

Speaking on the proposal ahead of the vote, Mr Tudehope rejected that it could result in racial profiling, but specifically listed Chinese and Indian communities as allegedly responsible for the practice.

Anti-abortion protesters outside NSW Parliament House
Debate continues in the NSW parliament on amendments to the bill to decriminalise abortion.
AAP

"Rather than introducing what some have tried to label as inappropriate ethnic profiling, this amendment would support brave women ... in their courageous resistance to an aggressive, deadly, anti-female attitude that is abhorrent and utterly unacceptable in NSW regardless of what cultural factors may underlie it," he told the chamber.

National co-director of Democracy in Colour, one of the organisations to sign the joint statement, Neha Madhok told SBS News that the decision to reject the amendment was "great news".

"What that amendment does is it further stigmatises abortion, but specifically so for women of colour in migrant communities where there could already be cultural or language barriers to accessing services to begin with," she said on Thursday.

"When we then talk about this [sex selection] in an Australian context or NSW context, it comes out like a dog whistle and it implies that there are a group of women who will use this in a particular way. 

"But we know that it doesn't actually matter why people with uteruses need to seek these services, because ultimately abortion is a fundamental health care right."

Ms Madhok said migrant and refugee women face a number of additional barriers when it comes to accessing reproductive health, including language, a lack of education, limited access and cultural stigma.

"If you've grown up in a culture where people don't talk about certain things, it can be very difficult to feel comfortable accessing that service because you may feel some sense of personal shame," she said.

"There could be a range of things that may seem simple to other people but could add that little bit of extra stress that could prevent you from putting yourself forward to access that service."

Last month, as the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019 was debated in the lower house, Liberal MP Tanya Davies argued that an amendment that put in writing the need for informed consent before an abortion could be performed was especially important for multicultural communities, despite those claims being rejected by doctors.

“Some women from multicultural backgrounds, or who are refugees, do not even understand English; they cannot read English,” Ms Davies said in parliament.

“They are at a greater risk of being made vulnerable because the bill in its current form does not insist that a medical practitioner receive their informed consent before conducting a termination.”

But doctors argued that this reasoning was flawed because medical professionals already abide by informed consent prior to all procedures, including abortion.

Speaking about the amendment, which passed 47 votes to 41, Australian Medical Association NSW vice-president Danielle McMullen said it was important to provide particular attention to the health needs of multicultural communities but said the amendment did not add anything to the system already in place.

The debate over the controversial bill resumed in the state's upper house this week after a weekend of heated protests from supporters of the bill and its opposition.

On Wednesday, the upper house agreed to an amendment moved by Liberal MP Taylor Martin to change the name of the laws from the Reproductive Health Care Reform Act 2019 to the Abortion Law Reform Act 2019.

The bill is seeking to remove abortion from NSW's 119-year-old Crime Act and in its current form would allow terminations up to 22 weeks and later with the consent of two doctors. 

The bill passed the lower house in August, 59 votes to 31. 

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