Sarah Christie is the Secretary of the Monash Student Association, and a student at Monash Clayton. Views are her own and don’t necessarily represent those of the Monash Student Association.
Trigger Warning for Abortion
Abortion law reform has always been a contentious and hotly debated political issue in Victoria. Unfortunately, this statement is still as true today as it ever was. Conservative politicians, religious organisations and bigoted individuals without uteruses continue to view abortions as a procedure that should be criminalised, abolished and banished from society. These people, some of whom are currently elected representatives in the Victorian Parliament, stand between the freedom of choice of all women to decide what happens to their bodies and when. Whilst this is a fight many thought was won back in 2008, it appears that the right to choice is not over yet.
In 2008 the Brumby Labor government (alongside members of the Greens and some Coalition politicians) passed the Abortion Law Reform Act (2008), which decriminalised the act of having an abortion. No longer were women who sought out the procedure faced with the prospect of being a criminal or having to get doctor’s approval and argue their ‘psychological circumstances’ warranted the procedure. Women, for the first time, could choose to have an abortion simply because it was their choice. It was a momentous reform that had been fought for every inch of the way.
Fast-forward to 2014 and, disappointingly, whispers of winding back the clock are afoot. Disgraced ex-Liberal Party (now Independent) MP Geoff Shaw is using the issue of abortion law reform as a political football in a minority Liberal government, hoping to leverage his votes in return for amendments to the 2008 Act. Geoff Shaw is an evangelical Christian who had criminal charges of misconduct and fraud alarmingly dropped against him last year. After this disgraceful set of events, Shaw resigned from the Liberal Party. It was at this time that Shaw found himself in the uncanny position of holding the balance of power in the lower house. In order to secure Shaw’s votes and shore up the party’s numbers, Premier Denis Napthine granted and assisted Shaw in drafting a private member’s bill which will seek to amend the Abortion Law Reform Act- taking Victoria back to the dark ages (or as many of us would say, back to the backyard). Napthine has denied any moves to see the bill tabled, however only days ago Shaw flagged in an interview with the ABC that he would like to see the bill tabled this term. After securing legal abortions in 2008 with quite decisive and clear margins in parliament, as well as 65% of the general community favouring legal surgical abortions (Ray Morgan Institute, 2006), it is frightening how much influence this lone MP with his fringe values seems to be wielding and the years of damage it could cause.
There are two key areas that Shaw would like to see amended.
The first of those is Section 8. Section 8 (also a common name used to refer to this current issue) of the Abortion Law Reform Act requires that doctors with a conscientious objection to abortions have to refer women onto doctors or services that can assist them. Shaw would like to see this removed, allowing doctors with “conscientious” objections to get away with not assisting women at all. This change is abhorrent for many reasons. In particular this is problematic as, for women who are young and alone, not being told how to have an abortion is the same as being told that it is not possible at all. When a doctor is facilitated in pretending that abortion clinics and services aren’t available, the impression will be that they don’t exist at all. When impressionable women go to doctors for assistance, referrals, knowledge and help, they should be given every opportunity to have all avenues explained to them, not having one door (often the door they seek) closed in their face at the first instance.
The second reason that the amendment to Section 8 is problematic is that doctors with conscientious objections are often most highly found in regional and remote parts of Victoria. These are the same areas where abortion clinics and services are least available. Combined, this plays a huge factor in why the highest number of teen pregnancies tends to be in areas like Gippsland. It is not fair that women in these areas, due to the lack of accessible public transport, services and social attitudes in the region, should be disproportionately affected by these potential changes. There is already so little real choice in regional and remote Victoria, that to exacerbate it would be cruel.
Finally, Section 8 needs to be voted down because of the nature of conscientious objectors. Doctors, as practitioners of the state, have a moral and legal obligation to assist patients without bias or objection. As professionals, their personal and political beliefs should have no bearing on the way their conduct themselves in our state hospitals and places of work. Their primary objective should be to assist any patient that arrives at their office regardless of their political views on the matter. The counter side to this argument of course is that individuals should not be forced to assist patients with issues that they object to, as it overrides the autonomy of the doctor to have their own values and beliefs respected. This is precisely why the status quo, which requires doctors with conscientious objections to refer patients to doctors who can help them, is an admirable middle ground. It respects the wishes of the patient and the doctor, without reducing the freedom of choice of either party and ensures access to an abortion is still a reality.
The second amendment that Shaw proposes is equally as horrific. Geoff Shaw is said to favour an amendment that would result in emergency abortions not being performed when a woman in trauma presents to a hospital if the doctors so choose. In short, if a pregnant woman in grave danger was presented to a Catholic hospital for instance, the foetus would be prioritised over the life of the woman. It is quite easy to see why this is incredibly problematic. A foetus is not a person, it is not a living breathing being, it is a foetus; and the life of a woman should not be jeopardised or lost at its expense.
Whilst all these changes are incredibly scary and depressing it is important to remember why women and our allies have fought for so many years to win legal and accessible abortions.
The right of a woman to choose what happens to her body should be her choice. Not a politician’s, not a man’s, and certainly not Geoff Shaw’s.
There are many reasons why a woman may fall pregnant, and there are many reasons why she may not want to see the pregnancy through till birth. These reasons are as unique and individual as the woman herself. The list can often include socio-economic reasons, the wrong timing, falling pregnant out of wedlock, medical reasons, not being able to adequately support a child, falling pregnant as a result of rape, religious reasons, or simply just not being ready.
Supporters of Shaw often claim to be pro-life. However, a central tenant of the pro-choice argument is that this claim is a myth. Advocates of choice, myself very much included, argue that when women are forced to carry a foetus to term they do more damage in the long term to the child. One of the more prominent reasons that women choose to have abortions, as mentioned above, is because they are simply not at a time in their life where they can adequately support a child. Forcing women to carry to term often means that their child grows up in an unstable home environment, with parents (or more often one parent) that lack job security, financial stability, their own home, friends and family who are at the same point in life and can assist with raising a child, knowledge, preparedness, longer term savings, the ability to pay for the costs associated of a raising a child and much more. Whilst this is certainly not always the case and it would be ludicrous to suggest that all young parents aren’t ready for the task, it is overwhelmingly clear that parents should always have children when they are good and ready, or at the very least when they are not backed into a corner by conservative politicians with no way out.
The right to choice is a fundamental one. It is a policy stance that respects women’s bodily autonomy, whether they ever need or want an abortion or not. It is a policy stance that belongs in the 21st century, at a time when women are closer to gender equality than any time in the past. Geoff Shaw and his conservative ilk should not use women and their uteruses as political footballs. It is frustrating that this debate even continues. However, in this moment, there is more impetus than ever for supporters of all political persuasions (the left in particular) to be vocal about the right to autonomy. With any luck, if we all stand together and raise our voices loud and clear, this will be the last time that women will ever have to fight for the right to choice again.