Briony Roelandts is a co-founder of Labor for Choice and Amy Knox is Secretary of the ACT Left Caucus
In Australia, one third of all women and people with reproductive abilities will have an abortion in their lifetime (Children by Choice 2017). As a society, we have made huge improvements in the area of safe abortion, however its continuous criminalisation in NSW and QLD, and the prominent conservative and religious discourse supporting the status quo, is out of touch with where we need to be. Women should not have to fear the legal repercussions for choosing to terminate a pregnancy, yet so often this has forced women to do so unsafely (often referred to as “backyard abortions”).
The Australian Labor Party has historically binded its vote to the party platform. We have operated this way to ensure that all our elected members are voting in the best interests of the Australian population, and can fight in solidarity against a conservative Government who has little interest in protecting the rights of our most vulnerable citizens. However due to the conscience vote on abortion remaining in the platform, the Labor party have not been able to make huge progress in the area of reproductive rights. In Queensland, the Labor Government had the opportunity to decriminalise abortion but did not - with the Liberals voting en bloc against the bill, and Labor MPs using their conscience vote, the numbers were not there to vote it up. This is exactly why marriage equality did not happen under a Federal Labor Government.
Earlier this year in NSW, a bill was defeated in the Upper House to decriminalise abortion, with three Labor MLCs exercising their conscience vote to vote against the bill. These Labor MLCs were all men. Our members of Parliament, particularly members with no reproductive abilities, should not be making life changing decisions on behalf of women who do not have the same access to the Parliamentary system. In fact, it is completely anti-democratic of us to expect that just because the individuals we elect to Parliament do not believe in abortion for whatever reason be it religious or personal, that they should be pushing that belief onto our citizens – especially when that belief affects half the population.
To assume that women will stop having abortions because a Government puts criminal restrictions on it is absurd. Instead, taking matters into their own hands, women seek more dangerous and unregulated alternatives. Abortion is not a new concept. In the early 1900s, pills which contained arsenic were often used, with also being common for women to use sharp household items to attempt a surgical abortion – putting their lives at serious risk. With safe abortions not accessible, women have had no choice but to unsafely terminate a pregnancy, or carry through an unwanted pregnancy which has many consequences in itself.
Women in the ACT are very lucky compared to those in surrounding states. In 2002 our Labor Government decriminalised abortion, and since then the ACT Government has worked towards ensuring that safe and accessible abortions are available to all women in the ACT. In 2015, the Government placed a ban on protestors standing out the front of abortion clinics to ensure that women were not made to feel uncomfortable when attending an appointment. It is disappointing to see other jurisdictions not only lag behind the ACT, but still, almost two decades later, make no move towards decriminalisation in their own states.
The Australian Labor Party is a party of collective action - we bind on nearly all state and national policy, and amend our platform to ensure our policies are in line with current times and values. Abortion should be no different, and now that marriage equality has been resolved, it remains the only conscience vote left in the party. Women in Australia deserve the right to full bodily autonomy and Australian voters must know that a vote for Labor is a vote for women’s rights.