The Australian women fighting to change a 119-year-old law that makes abortion illegal in NSW

As NSW looks to become the final Australian state to decriminalise abortion, the women who have been leading the campaign for years tell SBS News why it's finally time for change.

Sarah* is incredibly proud to be a women’s support worker in Western Sydney - but she doesn’t want her real name, or the organisation she is part of, included in this article.

The reason is two-fold: one, she worries anti-abortion advocates will single out the location for picketing, and two: the organisation is already struggling to handle the number of women accessing their abortion support services.

She fears the increased publicity will mean turning people away.

"We cannot leave these women to fend for themselves," Sarah* says.
Source: SBS News

“I would love to be telling you who we are and what we do,” she told SBS News.

“However, the number of women we saw last financial year really smashed us, we were at capacity. Any spare dollar we had went to helping those women.”

Historic bill 

After a bill aimed at overturning a 119-year-old law criminalising abortion was introduced to the NSW Parliament on Thursday, Sarah - like many other women’s health advocates - is hoping the proposed reform will go some way in alleviating pressure on the limited abortion services across the state.

“[It] should still mean that women can access a surgical termination of pregnancy in a safe environment and hopefully at a far lesser cost to them financially,” she said. 

“Whether that’s doing the surgical terminations in a public hospital, which would certainly help the country and regional women ... or whether it is the government funding the private clinics to provide the terminations.”

Meet the women who have campaigned to legalise abortion in NSW for years

Sarah often works with culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) women, and those referred to the organisation mostly get in contact after discovering they can’t afford the procedure at a private abortion clinic.

The fee is approximately $350 for medical abortions or $400 for the surgical procedure.

Sarah says the women she sees range from teenagers to women in their forties who may already have several children - sometimes up to nine. 

"It's time": Pro-choice advocates rally outside NSW Parliament following the announcement of the bill.
Source: AAP

“They may be an 18-year-old woman from an Arab country who, if she discloses to her family what is happening or what has happened, she really fears that her life is at risk,” she said. 

“It may be a woman from the regional or rural areas of NSW where there is only one GP in town. That GP may have fairly conservative ideas about ending a pregnancy so she feels isolated and stuck.”

In the latter case, the organisation would help the woman with transport to the city to be able to have an abortion. 

The law in NSW

Despite abortion being outlawed by the Crimes Act, women in NSW do currently have access to the service - if they can afford to pay - but only if a doctor determines to continue with the pregnancy would harm the woman’s physical or mental health.

In these cases, both the women and doctors are technically at risk of prosecution.

If successful, the new bill would allow for abortions up to 22 weeks to be performed by a registered doctor - and for the woman seeking the procedure not to be committing a crime. For terminations after that point, the consent of two doctors would be needed.

Currently, for someone seeking an abortion after the 20-week point of pregnancy, there are no options in NSW. In that case, the organisation Sarah works for may help a woman travel to Victoria for the procedure.

There is no national data collected on the number of abortions in Australia. Despite this, advocacy organisations estimate at least one in four Australian women will have an abortion in their lifetime.

“It’s never an easy decision for these women, they have very little options, there’s a range of reasons why they feel they can’t continue with a pregnancy and we hear them all,” Sarah said. 

“I know it is a contentious issue in the community, but we cannot leave these women to fend for themselves.”

Controversial issue

This week is not the first time a bill seeking to decriminalise abortion has been introduced to NSW Parliament.

Three years ago, federal Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi - at the time an NSW senator - proposed a bill to remove abortion from the NSW Crimes Act, bringing the conversation to the table for the first time in 100 years.

Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi introduced the first bill challenging the abortion provisions in the NSW Crimes Act in 2016.
Source: SBS News

It failed, but from that point on Senator Faruqi says she knew decriminalisation was inevitable.

“Women’s rights have always been hard fought for but we have fought for those rights with gusto … for decades, women and advocates for women's rights have pulled up their sleeves to make this change and together now we are at the cusp of actually overturning these 100-year-old laws,” she said. 

“While my abortion law reform bill was not successful in the NSW parliament in 2017, what it actually did was bring this issue to the table, on which parliament had remained silent for a whole century.”

This year's bill has been co-sponsored by a record 15 MPs from all sides of politics.

"It's not a left or right issue". NSW Labor MP Penny Sharpe addresses pro-choice supporters alongside Greens MP Jenny Leong outside the NSW Parliament.
Source: AAP

“It’s not a left or right issue,” NSW Labor MP and co-sponsors Penny Sharpe said. 

“It’s purely about women being able to make up their own mind and be able to access reproductive health care that is safe and legal and appropriate to what they need.”

NSW Liberal MP Felicity Wilson and Greens MP Jenny Leong, also co-sponsors, agree the bill should be pushed through with the support of both sides of parliament.

“I believe there is an expectation in our community to reform abortion law,” Ms Wilson said. 

But not all MPs agree. In federal parliament on Thursday, former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce used the example of his baby son to attack the push to decriminalise abortion in the state. 

Criticism this week also came from NSW Finance Minister Damien Tudehope who said the bill was "unjust" and  "the community won't stand for it", and Liberal MP Nathaniel Smith said he was "disgusted" at how the bill was "rammed" through parliament.

What took so long? 

Debate on the bill will take place early next week, with the issue finalised shortly after, but some campaigners have been asking why it has taken NSW so long to get to this point. 

Sinéad Canning, campaign manager of the NSW Pro-Choice Alliance, was instrumental in the fight to decriminalise abortion in Queensland last year. Since January, she has been a part of the group lobbying MPs to force reform in NSW.

Sinead Canning, 26, is the NSW Pro Choice Alliance's campaign manager. She's been lobbying MPs to introduce the bill into Parliament.
Source: SBS News

“When it comes to my reproductive rights, and the reproductive rights of those who are women and those have a uterus, you don’t have a full suite of reproductive rights. You can get arrested and prosecuted," the 26-year-old said. 

“This is not something that happens in the never, never. It is happening in NSW now."

As the abortion debate continues to heat up in the US, Ms Canning compared NSW’s laws to the controversial moves to limit access to abortion in Alabama.

“The Alabaman laws that are due to come into effect don’t criminalise the woman, we criminalise the woman here,” she said.

Under the proposed law, doctors in Alabama will be prevented from performing abortions, even in cases of rape, or risk up to 99 years in prison.

“It’s not [currently the woman's] decision in the end,” Medical Director of Family Planning NSW Deborah Bateson said. 

“The main thing is removing the law that was created in 1900, at a time when women didn’t have any autonomy and choice over their body.” 

Medical Director of Family Planning NSW Deborah Bateson says abortion should be treated as health care.

Dr Bateson says decriminalisation would be an important step in encouraging more doctors to offer abortion services, hopefully alleviating some of the travel costs for women from rural and regional areas.

“We should be seeing the procedure as health care. There’s no other medical procedure that is treated in such a way.”

Whether or not the new bill passes, campaigners say they won't be giving up the fight.
Source: AAP

There's one question that none of the women leading the NSW campaign want to answer: what happens if the bill fails again?

"We just keep working,” Sarah said. 

“There’s been many a strong woman out there who has been campaigning for 40, 50 years to decriminalise abortion in NSW … we will keep fighting.”

*Name has been changed

Published 1 August 2019 at 6:33pm, updated 2 August 2019 at 11:19am
By Emma Lawson, Maani Truu