ABC’s RN Breakfast interviewed Associate Professor Catherine Kevin from Flinders University about the abortion bill that will go to South Australia’s lower house for debate next week. Professor Kevin is a member of the South Australian Abortion Action Coalition.
Activists in South Australia want abortion removed from the criminal code and “reformed” in line with states like Queensland and NSW, which introduced harmful abortion laws over the past few years.
Professor Kevin said there are four issues for patients in the current law, which the bill seeks to address.
The first is the prescribed hospital clause, which means abortions must be carried out in approved hospitals. Professor Kevin says this means that women in rural and remote areas cannot access early medical abortion pills – which she says are “very safe” – and have to travel to metropolitan Adelaide to access any kind of abortion.
However, given the side-effects associated with medical abortion, women taking the drug at home in rural areas are at higher risk than women in urban areas, having more limited access to medical care in the case of haemorrhage, infection, or an incomplete abortion, which happens in 2-7% of cases. This is to say nothing of the psychological impact of abortion, particularly in the case of a medical abortion, which is a much more drawn out process and where the woman may have to deal with such side-effects alone.
The second issue is that the current law requires two doctors to assess a woman’s request for an abortion and to approve it. Professor Kevin says that this is contrary to a patient’s right to autonomy over their own medical decision making and also discriminates against regional Australian women who may not have access to two doctors.
But the two doctor requirement is a safeguard to ensure that such decisions are overseen properly. While patients have a right to autonomy in medical decision making, doctors are not mere technicians and also have a responsibility to ensure that such decision making is carried out appropriately. What’s more, abortion is not like any other procedure. It is a grave and irreversible decision with far reaching consequences for both women and their unborn children.
The third is that under the current law there is a gestational limit, where abortions must be carried out within 28 weeks and only if there is a risk to the woman’s health or if there’s a risk that the child would be born seriously disabled. The bill allows for “medically appropriate” abortions after a gestational limit of 22 weeks 6 days, which Professor Kevin says is more suitable. She believes that a hard limit is “a distraction” from providing the best possible care to women facing difficult situations. She says women don’t seek “abortion up to birth”, an idea she says is a “fallacy”, but that those who do seek late term abortions are either facing a really serious diagnosis of their baby or of themselves, or are in really difficult social situations facing homelessness, drug addiction, or escaping extreme domestic violence.
The reality however, is that talking about “providing the best possible care to women” is a distraction from a piece of legislation that, like radical laws passed in other states, unashamedly and intentionally has no upper limit on when abortions can be carried out. There is nothing “medically appropriate” about carrying out late-term abortions when a baby can be delivered alive if a woman’s life or health is at stake. In fact, carrying out an abortion at such a late gestation rather than simply delivering the child, would put the woman at far greater risk of harm. And for women facing difficult social situations – which is too often the case when it comes to those seeking abortion – it is those difficult circumstances the South Australian government should be seeking to address, rather than simply providing women the harmful bandaid solution of abortion.
Finally, Professor Kevin expressed that she wants to remove the stigma of criminality from abortion, as “abortion care is health care, that’s how we want it to be treated”.
We agree that women shouldn’t be criminalised for having an abortion, due to systemic issues which mean that they are not provided with all the support or information available in order to make a real choice, and due to various pressures, often feel like abortion is their only choice. We believe it is counter-productive and unjust to charge women in such desperate circumstances, particularly in light of the suffering that many women also experience after abortion. In this regard, an amendment could simply be made to the current law protecting women from criminal responsibility and this is something we would wholeheartedly support. However, there is hardly a “stigma of criminality” when abortion is already so easy to access and such a common procedure in South Australia.
As to the point that “abortion is health care” and should be treated as such, it is dubious to describe as health care something that doesn’t actually treat any illness or medical condition, puts women at serious risk of physical and psychological harm, fails to treat the underlying reasons women seek abortion in the first place, and ends the life of a child, who in a context where it’s mother was not facing such difficult circumstances, would otherwise be nurtured and cared for in the course of genuine health care provided during the course of pregnancy.