The Northern Territory parliament has recently passed a bill which amends the Termination of Pregnancy Law Reform Act 2017, making it easier for women to access late-term abortions. But do these amendments genuinely improve Territorian women’s options and circumstances?
Proponents of the bill are saying this law change will give women more choice. Yet, the laws have not addressed anything else except providing greater access to abortion for women. Surely, more choice for women would involve greater support for women who find themselves pregnant and in need of financial assistance, counselling, support to continue with education, or other practical care? Unfortunately, it appears that the legislation has been passed without implementing or bolstering integral support systems.
In addition to not providing more holistic pregnancy services or strengthening existing ones, there are some other clear issues with the bill.
First, it removes a provision requiring that a “suitably qualified medical practitioner” be responsible for assessing women before an abortion. This means that assessments that were previously performed by an obstetrician, gynaecologist or a medical practitioner credentialed in fertility control – experts in pregnancy – can now be performed by any doctor without any related expertise. While this change may make seeking an abortion a quicker process, it prioritises speed over women’s welfare.
The changes also now allow abortion to birth for whatever reason, while the previous legislation allowed abortions up until 14 weeks without restriction and still allowed abortions after the 23 week mark if the mother’s life was in danger. The only explanation for this change from Minister for Health Natasha Fyles, as detailed in the Legislative Assembly Hansard, is that “it brings the NT legislation in line with Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory” and prevents women seeking late-term abortions for non life-threatening reasons from having to cross the border into other states.
Ms Fyles said: “in the NT, around 5.4 per cent of terminations take place after 14 weeks and 1.2 per cent after 20 weeks”. This small number of women – which Ms Fyles is quoting – reflect statistics under the previous legislation which only allowed women to abort viable babies if there was a direct threat to the mother’s life. Yet, Ms Fyles uses this number to justify increasing late-term abortion to all women for all reasons. Ms Fyles goes on to say that the change “would impact about six people each year”, meaning she is estimating that around six women will have a late-term abortion for non-life-threatening reasons. However, she fails to supply evidence or statistics to substantiate her claim. The fact is, she is unable to provide any evidence because the NT does not collect any data on the reasons women abort their babies.
Passing legislative changes that enable abortion to birth without sufficient consideration of how many women are seeking this service, why they are seeking it, and the increased risks of harm it poses to women, demonstrates a lack of due diligence on the part of the NT government. It is imperative that the NT expand its data collection on abortion – it is far more difficult to make sensible policy decisions that genuinely benefit women when all the information isn’t on the table.
In response to the passing of the bill, Shadow Minister for Women Marie-Clare Boothby said, "We continue to receive a large amount of concern about this bill from a number of stakeholders including community members, organisations and medical professions" – concerns which have gone largely unaddressed by the government.
Minister Boothby’s comments reflect another major oversight in the bill. She points out that “some women may feel pressured to have an abortion and this bill makes it more accessible”. She is absolutely correct – there is an established link between reproductive coercion, unintended pregnancy, and domestic violence; as well as higher rates of abortion among women in relationships where domestic violence is present. This is of particular importance in the NT, which is home to a large percentage of Indigenous Australians (30.3 per cent of the population) because an “Aboriginal woman is 45 times more likely to experience domestic violence than a white woman” meaning they are also particularly vulnerable to coerced abortions.
In the United States, it is suspected that rates of reproductive coercion are “so large and yet so hidden that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is recommending doctors screen for reproductive coercion alongside domestic violence”.
Screening for high-risk groups of women seeking abortion is critical, particularly for teenage girls, Indigenous women, domestic violence victims, women from low socio-economic backgrounds, and women accessing late-term abortions.
Abortion is not the most considered, or empathetic approach to dealing with the complex life circumstances of pregnant women and girls. When women are given greater access to abortion without being offered any alternative support or services, and when there is no consideration given to the complex reasons women might be seeking an abortion, it does an enormous disservice to those women and their communities. Each woman’s circumstances are unique and must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
If the NT government genuinely wants to provide its women with more choice and support when it comes to unplanned pregnancies, it would invest in pregnancy counselling, address issues of domestic violence, and provide assistance for mothers experiencing financial difficulty, including childcare and other support services. These are all important tools to holistically address the difficulties and pressures women may face during pregnancy, and would constitute a much more woman-centred approach than simply paving the way for more abortions.