Aboriginal women and health workers have welcomed the NSW Parliament’s move to decriminalise abortion but say there is still a long way to go in improving access to health services for Indigenous women.
Members of NSW’s lower house passed the Reproductive Health Care Reform Act late Thursday night after three days of debate.
If the bill is passed into law by the upper house, it will mark the end of 119 years of abortion as a criminal offence in NSW.
Melanie Briggs from the Waminda South Coast Women’s Health and Welfare Aboriginal Corporation told NITV News, access to safe reproductive health services was the key to breaking the cycle of child removal in Aboriginal communities.
“Because they’ve been denied the right to choose whether to continue the pregnancy, that leads to increased pressure from Community Services, and in most cases it will lead to child removal,” she said.
“It’s a massive chain of events and we’re trying to stop that cycle – if women had access to reproductive health choices across the country, we wouldn’t have such high rates of child removal.”
The bill will remove three sections of the NSW Crimes Act of 1900 that made it a criminal offence to “unlawfully” procure an abortion.
Research last year from the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health found more than 70% of people were unaware abortion was still a criminal offence in NSW, with access to abortion usually covered in part by Medicare.
While she said the vote was a “fantastic outcome”, Ms Briggs said there is still a long way to go in Indigenous communities.
“Access is number one – education and access,” she said.
“We need to educate our young people so they know having a family isn’t just about a baby, it’s about foundations and healthy communities and healthy families, so you need to be set up.”
The lead up to the vote saw heated campaigning by advocates on both sides of the debate, with both pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates.
Yorta Yorta woman Summer May Finlay is a health researcher and was one of more than 50 women who signed on to a campaign called ‘Arrest Us’ ahead of the parliamentary vote.
“We are diverse women. Our abortion experiences are varied. We have had abortions, some decades ago and some very recently,” their statement read.
“We have all had abortions under NSW laws which define abortion as a crime. We want to be the last. We say: arrest us.”
Speaking with NITV the morning after the bill was passed, Ms Finlay said she was still concerned that many Aboriginal women did not have access to reproductive health services.
“We know most clinics are in urban environments, there’s financial barriers too – an abortion costs about $500 – that’s really expensive and quite a lot of money for a lot of Aboriginal families,” she said.
“Aboriginal women living in rural and remote areas often have limited access to doctors, and this legislation allows doctors to give a conscientious objection, so in areas where there’s only one or two doctors, that could make it challenging.”
The amended bill currently states, in the event a doctor has a conscientious objection to performing abortions they must refer the patient to a practitioner who is able to perform the service “without delay”.
Reflecting on her own experiences, Ms Finlay said she felt there was a lot of stigma around abortion in Aboriginal communities.
“I was 21, so it was not unusual for my cousins to have children at that age, so I didn’t tell anyone in my family, not even my mum, because I didn’t feel it would be appropriate to talk about,” she said.
“There’s stigma around abortion for all women, but I think there’s a lot of stigma for Aboriginal women in particular, because there’s stigma around everything for us.”
After passing 59 votes to 31 in the lower house, the bill will be tested by the government’s social issues committee next week before moving to the upper house for another vote.