Back in 1900, a group of politicians sat down and drafted up a set of laws to govern the Australian state of New South Wales. One can only assume they were wearing wigs. And there were, of course, things they decided weren’t acceptable in polite, turn-of-the-century society. Probably a lot of stuff about stealing another man’s horse.
But as time passed things shifted and many of those laws—now more than 100 years old—were amended or repealed entirely. That is except for Section 82-84 of the Crimes Act 1900, which makes it illegal for a woman to get an abortion in Australia’s most populous state.
Reading like a Shakespearean sonnet, the law specifically instructs that:
Whosoever, being a woman with child, unlawfully administers to herself any drug or noxious thing, or unlawfully uses any instrument or other means, with intent in any such case to procure her miscarriage, shall be liable to imprisonment for ten years.
If you didn’t catch that: A woman who tries to terminate her pregnancy is up for 10 years in jail. And that’s not all. She doesn’t even have to go through with the abortion, she just needs some intention of doing so. And any doctor who procures abortion drugs is also breaking the law, and faces five year behind bars.
It’s insane that this incredibly outdated law is still on the books. But to be fair, it’s not as though women are being arrested over it on a daily basis. This isn’t a law police really enforce, and those who oppose changing it will often say that abortion is only “technically illegal.”
“I don’t know what ‘technically illegal’ means,” says Associate Professor Leslie Cannold, an abortion reform activist who played a central role in repealing Australia’s national ban on abortion drug RU486 (a “noxious thing” under the law). But although Leslie says people who seek abortions usually aren’t prosecuted, she concedes “if it’s in the criminal code, it’s in the criminal code.”
“Every now and then you’ll get a police officer who didn’t get the memo that this is a law we don’t enforce,” Cannold says, pointing to the case of Tegan Leach who was just 19 years old when she was prosecuted for getting an abortion.
Leach was charged in Queensland, rather than NSW, but both states maintain these century-old laws. Eventually, Leach and her partner were found not guilty, but only after a lengthy 18-month court battle, where she faced seven years in jail if she lost.
Queensland’s abortion laws haven’t changed in the years since. Just last week it emerged that a 12-year-old girl had to wait weeks to access an abortion in the state. In the Northern Territory, politicians are fighting against the introducing of RU486, dismissing abortion as a “fashion trend.”
Back in NSW, Cannold says it doesn’t matter whether the law is enforced or not—abortion remaining a criminal offence stigmatises women, and reinforces the idea that abortion is wrong or shameful. The state’s workaround is for a doctor to say the woman’s health is in danger if the pregnancy isn’t terminated.
But that isn’t always the case: sometimes a woman just doesn’t want have a baby. In 2016, a woman shouldn’t have to lie to access an abortion. “One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime,” Cannold says. “This isn’t a minority issue.”
Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi is petitioning the NSW government is change these laws. She’s also pushing the state to bring in “safe zones” around abortion facilities—like Victoria has—that would essentially mean protestors have to stay at least 150 metres from the entrance. The Abortion Law Reform Bill also addresses the issue of doctors who are against abortion, requiring them “to disclose conscientious objection at the start of the consultation and refer patients to another doctor who does not have such an objection.”
“This is a conversation NSW Parliament has been avoiding for more than one hundred years,” Dr Faruqi said Thursday. “We must decriminalise abortion and enact safe access zones around abortion clinics across NSW. The situation we have now is incredibly precarious, and an archaic state of affairs.”