Those on the right of Queensland’s political spectrum do not have a history of supporting abortion law reform.
During his reign as premier from 1968 to 1987, Joh Bjelke-Petersen authorised police raids on abortion clinics; the state’s former Liberal National Party (LNP) leader Campbell Newman promised in 2011 he would not touch abortion law if elected; and this year every single member of the LNP vowed to vote for abortion to remain a crime.
Retired LNP senator Sue Boyce is going against the grain as the new convener of Pro Choice Queensland, a collection of organisations campaigning for the removal of abortion from the state’s Criminal Code.
“I know a vast number of MPs just don’t realise it is still a crime in 2017, because they know someone who has an abortion in Brisbane and they think [the procedure] is freely available, because they’re unaware most public hospitals don’t do them,” Boyce told BuzzFeed News.
“If you live in remote Queensland or you can’t afford the up-to-$3000 cost to have it done at a private clinic well, sorry lady, you’re on your own.
“It is an equity issue for me because there are women who aren’t able to have abortions because they don’t live in the right bit of Queensland, and women who experience domestic and sexual violence [who] can’t afford it.”
The Liberal National Party has not been at the vanguard of abortion law reform in Queensland. Indeed, any chance of getting abortion out of the Criminal Code all but vanished in February when the state’s opposition leader Tim Nicholls announced that “every single member” of his Liberal National Party would vote down proposed changes to the law.
Independent Cairns MP and Labor party defector Rob Pyne was forced to withdraw the bill to avoid its imminent failure in the chamber, and it was referred to the Queensland Law Reform Commission.
Boyce thinks decriminalisation is “philosophically” aligned with “small L liberals”.
“If you are in favour of small government, you have to question what on earth a government is doing forcing some women to become mothers irrespective of what they want,” she said.
Pyne introduced his bill last August and it was rejected by a Queensland parliamentary committee after a series of public hearings and more than 1,400 submissions from concerned individuals, religious MPs and passionate healthcare professionals.
Pyne then introduced a second bill to address the committee’s concerns, which also failed.
Boyce said elements of Pyne’s legislation “allowed anti-abortion advocates” to “create enough doubt” that politicians weren’t prepared to endorse the bills.
One of the main issues Boyce will address in an information sheet she is sending to all Queensland MPs is “all the silly nonsense around late-term abortions”.
According to the most recent figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 0.7% of abortions in Australia were carried out at or after 20 weeks. Most (94.6%) were performed before 13 weeks of gestation.
Nonetheless the arguments against the bills centred around the issue of abortions after the second and even third trimesters, falsely arguing that decriminalisation would somehow remove current protections for foetuses.
In Queensland, anti-abortion group Cherish Life launched a raft of radio, newspaper and Facebook advertisements which claimed the laws would allow “abortion at ANY stage of pregnancy, for ANY reason”.
The Australian Christian Lobby described Pyne’s bill as an “abortion-to-birth” law.
Anti-abortion Queensland MP Fiona Simpson said decriminalisation legislation would legalise “the killing of unborn children up until the point of birth”. Cleveland MP Mark Robinson said it was “the most dangerous abortion law in the Western world”.
Boyce said the debate was “really disrespectful”.
“To suddenly think that someone at 34-weeks is going to say: ‘Oops! I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want a baby, I want to go on a skiing holiday instead!’, is ridiculous,” she said.
“This idea that women are silly little creatures that act on whims and can’t really be trusted to be in control of their own lives … that group then thinks those women should be forced to be mothers.”
When asked whether she was worried about backlash for taking on the issue, Boyce said: “I have undertaken a few security measures.”
Many Queensland doctors were involved in campaigning efforts for Pyne’s bill but once it failed, 19 gynaecologists, obstetricians, surgeons and GPs, who asked not to be named “for reasons of their own safety”, called on their government to reform abortion law reform sooner than promised.
“Those of us who provide early surgical and medical abortions… are often confronted by women in very difficult social, domestic and medical situations who need our help in other aspects of their health and social care as well as the provision of abortion,” the doctors wrote.
Boyce said Pro Choice Queensland had widespread support in the medical community.
“We have the support of more than 70 organisations, including major medical organisations and doctors, social workers and psychologists,” she said.
“I see our job as ensuring that the majority of MPs understand the real issues and facts around abortion in Queensland and the grotesque unfairness of the situation we’re currently in.”
The Labor government has vowed to “modernise” the state’s abortion laws if re-elected, pending advice from the Law Reform Commission.