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Australian Centre for Health Law Research academics Professors Lindy Willmott and Ben White appeared before a Queensland Parliamentary Committee for a second time this year, urging decriminalisation of abortion in Queensland.
“We consider abortion should be recognised by the Queensland law as fundamentally a woman’s health matter, rather than a criminal law issue, and that it should be regulated as a health matter, as is the case in other Australian jurisdictions” said Professor Lindy Willmott.
“Continuing to classify abortion in Queensland as a criminal offence attracting condemnation, punishment and penalties is problematic, harmful and counter-productive for both women and health professionals.”
The Queensland Health, Communities, Disability Services and Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Committee (the Committee) undertook an Inquiry in May 2016 into a Private Members’ Bill, the Abortion Law Reform (Woman's Right to Choose) Amendment Bill 2016 (the first Bill), which sought to abolish abortion-related offences in the Queensland Criminal Code.
A further inquiry was launched into a second Private Members’ Bill, the Health (Abortion Law Reform) Amendment Bill 2016 (the second Bill) in October 2016, which proposes changes to existing health legislation regarding termination of pregnancy.
Professors Willmott and White provided written submissions and appeared before both Inquiries to provide expertise on the Queensland laws, and reform that is needed (see links below). ACHLR academic Dr Andrew McGee and colleagues also provided a written submission (see links to submissions below).
The professors' submissions build on their previous research relating to abortion law, particularly on the issue of termination of a non-Gillick competent minor’s pregnancy.
“Queensland has an unusual legal position whereby the parents of non-competent young women are unable to consent to the termination of their daughter’s pregnancy. Instead, a court must grant approval for an abortion to occur in those circumstances,” said Professor Willmott.
“We are deeply concerned by the impact of this law on young pregnant women, in particular the potential to cause them harm, distress and humiliation, and unnecessary delays in receiving a termination.”
“We have raised this issue before both Inquiries, and have suggested the Queensland Parliament introduce legislation which allows a child’s parents or legal guardians, rather than the court, to consent to a termination in those circumstances.”
Following receipt of more than 1400 submissions with public hearings held in Brisbane, Emerald and Cairns, the Committee released a final report on the first Bill in August 2016. The report made multiple references to Professor Willmott and White’s oral and written submissions, including their recommendations regarding the key values that should underpin the law governing abortion in Queensland. While the Committee did not support the first Bill, it canvassed future abortion law reform options.
Professor Willmott commended the committee for undertaking a broad consultation and considering evidence from a wide range of stakeholders, but noted the outcome was “disappointing” and “a missed opportunity”.
“The Committee’s report provided a thorough analysis of the evidence arising from the Inquiry, but the failure to recommend immediate decriminalisation of abortion, and its regulation as a health matter is regrettable,” she said.
“The Committee heard compelling evidence as to why reform is needed, including that the current law is uncertain, fails to promote women’s health, can expose women to harm and does not reflect community standards.”
The researchers said reform would also remove legitimate concerns about prosecution that are currently held by women seeking abortions and their treating doctors.
The Committee now has another opportunity to consider decriminalisation of the law following its second inquiry. It is due to report back on the second Bill by 17 February 2017.
The Queensland Parliament passed a motion in late November 2016 which will see it debate and vote on the two Bills together in 2017 once the second Inquiry is completed and the Committee has tabled its report.
Professors Ben White and Lindy Willmott of the Australian Centre for Health Law Research