On Saturday, Australians woke up to an outpouring of horror, heartbreak and dismay from the northern hemisphere, as abortion rights were stripped from citizens of the United States.
The conservative majority of the US supreme court had made good on its intention, leaked in a draft opinion earlier this year, to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling which established the constitutional right to abortion. Removing the constitutional right has allowed states to implement their own laws, with Kentucky, South Dakota and Louisiana’s so-called “trigger bans” coming into effect automatically after the Friday 24 decision. At least 26 states are expected to ban abortion.
The decision to reverse Roe v. Wade is a galling leap backwards, an attack on bodily autonomy and the rights of women and people with uteruses, and will undoubtedly have global ramifications. From Australia, the Supreme Court’s decision feels disembodied, seemingly occurring in a parallel, dystopian universe: a psychotic hellscape where a bunch of geriatric sceptres can make violent, life-changing decisions about other peoples’ bodies on a mind-bendingly conservative, patriarchal, ostensibly religious mission to exact control.
But our own rights aren’t so solid here either.
Australians do not have a universal right to abortion care. Abortion was only decriminalised in New South Wales in 2019, Queensland in 2018, and Victoria in 2008. Western Australia was the first state to legalise abortion up to 20 weeks, in 1998, however it is still part of the state’s criminal code, not yet properly decriminalised. We have no constitutional right to choose abortion, and abortion access is far from guaranteed – heavily dependent on your location and circumstance.
Daile Kelleher, chief executive officer of Children by Choice, a Brisbane-based non-profit providing support across pregnancy options including termination, told VICE that while the National Women’s Health Strategy has outlined a commitment to provide universal, free (or low-cost), access to abortions by 2030, she was keen to see what steps the federal or state and territory governments were actually taking to meet that commitment.
“We actually only saw the South Australian decriminalisation enacted on Friday… that’s how recent some of this legislation is,” she said.
Kelleher said that despite Australian states and territories moving to legislate the decriminalisation of abortion there were still many obstacles in providing safe abortion access across the country.
“I think some of [the states], once they did the legislation, they just ticked that box and moved on, while others have been working really hard to embed access into their health care systems.”
As for progress towards making abortion access part of the national health care system, Kelleher said “it’s really patchy across Australia”
“We do have a workforce issue: we need to see – for people who are studying medicine and gynaecology – that termination of pregnancy is part of what they get exposed to and what they’re expected to be a practitioner in.”
“At the moment, a lot of the legislation that exists does allow conscientious objection, which tries to balance the rights of someone who doesn’t want to provide abortion care with the rights of people who want to access abortion care. But we know that the way that’s actually happening in practice does create lots of barriers for people.”
Despite abortion being legal in a majority of states, the conscientious objection legislation has been critiqued, with a 2019 Victorian study finding misuse of conscientious objection by Government telephone staff, pharmacists, institutions, and political groups. All doctors surveyed had negative experiences with the law, with some directly contravening the law by not referring the patient to an abortion-friendly GP, attempting to make women feel guilty, or attempting to delay women’s access to abortion.
Bonnie Corbin, head of policy at MSI Australia, told the ABC that people could still face significant costs and stigma in Australia, while only about 9 percent of GPs offered the surgical procedure. The cost of abortion can also vary wildly, from bulk billing for people with a health care card to up to $8,000 for people on temporary visas.
While it is unlikely that Roe v. Wade’s reversal will directly impact Australia’s own legislation, there are concerns that the decision could heighten stigma against people who do seek abortion care.
“Feeling that judgement about a very personal decision about your own body is uncomfortable and can create so much stigma and negativity within communities,” Corbin told The Age.
Another source of concern is that the ruling could embolden Australian anti-abortion groups, which have so far relished the news. Some conservative fanatics at a government level took to Twitter to share their thoughts, including Liberal Senator Matt Canavan, who blithely tweeted, “a wonderful day to protect human life”.
This is despite what experts everywhere agree: without safe access to abortion, many lives will be ruined and many people will die.
Kelleher said she was hopeful that Australian governments across the nation would be bolstered by the decision, and that abortion care, rather than being a “political football”, will be treated as health care and embedded into systems so it can’t be removed.
“Because it’s political, it will be something we always need to be aware of and across. But the strongest thing governments can do in terms of leadership in this space is actually ensure they are embedding universal healthcare for termination of pregnancy in our health care systems,” she said.
“We’re not where the US is. We don’t have the same structures and systems as they have. But this is an important moment to realise that there are still gaps, there are still barriers, there are still ways for individual hospitals to not provide that care, and we do think there needs to be a stronger push. Leadership from government is exactly what’s needed.”