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NSW abortion law out of step with community views: research

11 September 2018
Support for decriminalisation of abortion
Abortion law reform in NSW would reduce current inequalities of access, be democratic and support women's autonomy and reproductive rights, say researchers.

An analysis from University of Sydney and James Cook University finds that abortion law in New South Wales is out of step with current community views with residents largely unaware that abortion remains in the criminal code.

Published today in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, the researchers analysed a survey of more than 1,000 men and women from across NSW about their knowledge of current abortion law and views on abortion law reform.

In Australia, women’s access to abortion is regulated according to different legislation in each state and territory. In the Australian Capital Territory, abortion has been removed completely from criminal law and is managed under health-related laws. However, in NSW and Queensland, the legal situation remains ambiguous and unlawful abortion remains a crime in both states.

Key findings from the survey:

  • 76 percent of respondents were unaware that abortion is a criminal offence in NSW
  • 73 percent thought abortion should be decriminalised and regulated as a healthcare service
  • 89 percent supported legal changes to protect women seeking abortion from harassment  
  • 81 percent support protester exclusion zones around abortion clinics, with support for these measures significantly stronger among regional and rural residents than Sydney-based respondents
  • Support for decriminalisation was consistent across genders, age groups, levels of education and residents of metropolitan and regional/rural areas.

“There is a lack of knowledge in the community that abortion remains in the criminal code in NSW,” said author and gynaecologist Associate Professor Kirsten Black, from the University of Sydney’s Central Clinical School and Charles Perkins Centre.

“When people are informed that is the situation, there is overwhelming community support for decriminalisation of abortion.

“Abortion remains a crime in NSW and QLD at present, but QLD is moving to decriminalisation which will leave NSW as the last state to modernise its abortion law.”

In NSW, unlawful abortion is a criminal offence for a woman and for her doctor or the person administering the intervention, and is punishable by up to 10 years jail (Crimes Act 1900). Subsequently, case law has established that abortion is lawful in NSW if the doctor has an honest opinion that continuing the pregnancy would be seriously harmful to the health of the woman. This test of lawfulness remains the basis on which abortion may be provided in NSW.

Professor Black added: “It is important that women seeking abortion are protected from intimidation outside abortion clinics.

“The ‘Safe Access’ bill that was recently passed by the NSW parliament aligns with the sentiments of survey respondents that believed it was important for women accessing abortion services to be protected from harassment.

“There is also broad support for abortion law reform among healthcare professionals with medical, nursing and public health practitioners endorsing change.”

Co-author Professor Alexandra Barratt from the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health said: “Community support for reform was strong in regional and rural areas, even more so than in metropolitan areas, perhaps a reflection that accessing abortion can be more difficult for women living in regional and rural regions.

“Health services, including abortion, need to be accessible to all to reduce health inequalities. Abortion law reform would reduce current inequalities of access, be democratic and support women’s autonomy and reproductive rights.”

Several efforts over time to remove abortion from criminal legislation have been unsuccessful, leaving NSW and Queensland as the only states in Australia where abortion law is still ultimately based on 19th century English law.

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