Keeping women pregnant, Queensland style

In the middle of a murder investigation in 2010, police officers searching the home of a nineteen-year-old woman in Cairns found an empty blister packet and a set of instructions written in Ukrainian.

The packet had held the drug Mifepristone, commonly known as RU486, and the teenager told police she’d taken the drug to abort a foetus, because she didn’t think she was capable of caring for a child.

Eighteen months later, the woman and her boyfriend became the public face of Queensland’s draconian, seemingly unchangeable abortion laws.

The Crown laid charges. There was a trial. Police prosecutors told a court the teenager wasn’t at risk when she induced a miscarriage and had therefore broken a criminal law introduced more than a century earlier. Her boyfriend faced a jail term, too, for obtaining the drug. Thankfully, the public appetite for a conviction was not there: it took a jury less than an hour to find both the woman and her boyfriend not guilty.

Seven years later, it is still possible for the same thing to happen. If police in Queensland determine that a woman was not at genuine risk when she had an abortion, a jail term is the threat that hangs over her and those who assist her.

And seven years later, Cairns is still at the centre of Queensland’s abortion debate. In late 2016, the city’s independent MP Rob Pyne, a former Labor man, introduced two private member’s bill to decriminalise abortion into Queensland Parliament.

The two bills would have removed abortion from the Criminal Code and moved it to the Health Act. Queensland had already shown that it has no desire to convict women under the existing law, so changing it should have been an easy win for a government that was hailed as historic for women when it took power in 2015.

But the bills failed. On 28 February, Pyne agreed to withdraw them both just one day before they were due to be debated.

The bills’ failure was almost inevitable, because nobody in power wants to be the one associated with the decriminalisation of abortion in the state.

Reading the debate around the bills, it seems that leaders of both major parties still believe women are incapable of making informed decisions about their own bodies and health. Politicians continue to infantilise women’s opinions about reproductive options and downplay how difficult the reality of accessing abortion services across Queensland is.

When announcing the LNP’s opposition to the bill, Opposition leader Tim Nicholls cited a lack of regulation in Pyne’s bills, implying women would seek abortion without medical supervision or via illegally obtained drugs. He went onto claim that any woman who ‘wants or needs’ an abortion in Queensland can already obtain one safely by going to her doctor.

The statement deliberately ignores the experience of women in this state.

Even in cities where there is a choice of GP, women have to find one who will actually perform an abortion. If too many weeks have passed (that is, more than nine), they have to go to greater lengths to find a provider who will perform a surgical abortion.

In rural centres where there might only be one or two GPs, women don’t get that choice: if their local doctor refuses to offer abortion, their only backup is to travel to a city-based service, or to phone a national telehealth service that can mail them out RU-486 after a phone consultation with a doctor.

Each provider has their own set of rules, opening hours and costs. The cost especially can be a barrier for women: abortion is expensive enough, even without the additional costs of travel, accommodation and missed work.

And even as women seeking an abortion in Queensland wade through all these obstacles, they also have to prove that their own health or wellbeing is at risk – otherwise doctors and staff providing the procedure can face a jail term of fourteen years (twice as much as the woman herself faces).

None of this is easy. So why does Nicholls dismiss abortion reform when it’s so obviously a matter of women’s lives?

The women I have talked to feel our collective voice in the public debate on this has not been heard. The bills were introduced by a (well-intentioned) man, and were doomed to be defeated by a group of mostly male MPs. That this this all happened while Queensland is led by two women makes the defeat even more bitter.

Queensland women say it is too difficult to get an abortion in Queensland. Politicians tell us if we want one, we can already obtain one. We say we want the right to decide. They delay and stagnate the chance of reform that would give us that right. The consequences are clear. When our opinions are expendable, our health and our lives become expendable too. Any debate about abortion is a debate about women’s futures.

If Queensland is to bring its abortion law into the twenty-first – or even the twentieth – century, it first must trust the opinions of the people who rely on abortion access. For that to happen, those voices need to be loud.

This could mean putting pressure on GPs and associations like the AMA to offer medical abortions as a standard service.

Women in Labor-held seats can let their MPs know they won’t get their vote unless Labor commit to the promise made by this government to abortion reform in the next term.

It could mean pressuring the public system into increasing abortion access. 99% of all abortions in Queensland are performed in the private sector. An increase in services in the public sector could help drive down costs for vulnerable women and women in rural areas.

If we can do that, eventually we might actually achieve the results that Nicholls and the Parliamentary Committee he was quoting already think exist. That is, abortion services that are safe, legal and easy to access for every single woman in Queensland who needs them.


Image: ‘Prams’ / Rich Brooks

Hannah Busch

Hannah Busch is a journalist and fiction writer based in Queensland.

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