Dr Abela Mahimbo and Dr Amie Steel
PHAA’s Women’s Health Special Interest Group convenors
The Australian public health community is outraged at the decisions of US state legislatures to deny women’s reproductive control over their lives.
On Friday the US Supreme Court, by a 5-4 majority of conservative judges, dissolved a 50-year constitutional principle that held that women possess a right to privacy extending to control of their reproductive health. In response, many US state legislatures have – or soon will – change state laws to severely limit terminations of pregnancies.
PHAA’s Abortion Policy supports the right of all women in the world to have control of their reproductive health.
Restricting access to safe, legal, compassionate, and timely abortion care threatens a range of health risks to women, including most immediately in relation to ectopic pregnancies, septic uterus conditions, and miscarriages, and has long-term implications on their mental health and well-being.
Moreover, banning legal abortions does not in practice prevent most abortions, it just leaves them to be conducted in dangerous, life-threatening conditions.
There are also morally unacceptable impacts relating to sexual violence and forced pregnancies, which are create or perpetuated by laws for the restriction of pregnancy termination. That such harms should be imposed by law is horrifying, and speaks to a vision of social dominance over women that has no place in a free society.
The new situation in the US will inevitably cost the lives of countless thousands of women in the years to come, and will disproportionately prejudice minority populations and other disadvantaged groups.
Restricting reproductive freedom also fundamentally impacts on the social freedoms of women and families, denying them the capacity to plan their own lives, including both the establishment of families as well as the decision not to.
Ultimately, personal control of physical health, bodily integrity, and life decisions are basic human rights, which are denied by reproductive health restrictions.
The situation in Australia presently seems to be more modern. For many years no jurisdiction brought criminal proceedings against pregnant women or their medical carers under common law concepts. States and territories began officially decriminalising termination in their criminal statutes about two decades ago, with the last four states doing so in the period 2018-2021. So it should be acknowledged that our parliaments have being upholding and improving reproductive rights in recent years, and political support for reproductive health in Australia seems strong for the present.
And yet, politically Australia is in a position similar to that confronting the United States, with each state parliament retaining the constitutional capacity to restrict reproductive freedoms at some future point.
The Commonwealth Government can also play important roles in restricting reproductive freedoms in certain circumstances. Less than two decades ago federal health minister Tony Abbott attempted to use federal power over the approval of a key pharmaceutical drug to limit pregnancy termination opportunities.
The Australian community will need to be eternally vigilant to ensure that legislatures remain committed to women’s rights and safety. Those rights have no constitutional guarantee in Australia.
In addition, there are still real practical barriers to equitable, affordable access to abortion care in many parts of Australia. State health service delivery needs to be improved, maintained, and protected from ideological interference.
The new national Government’s policy position should also be acknowledged. The Labor Party 2022 national platform commits the Government to “improve sexual and reproductive health for all Australians and support the rights of individuals to make decisions regarding their reproductive health, particularly the right to choose appropriate contraceptives and termination or to continue with their pregnancy.”
“Labor will ensure these choices are supported by access to relevant medical, support and advice services.”
“Labor will work with states and territories to improve legal protections, such as safe access zones for women seeking termination services, as well as expand service provision in the public system.”
These are welcome national commitments for Australia.
But for now we must extend our sorrow and regret for the challenges that lie ahead for women in the United States.
A summary of the law governing termination of pregnancies can be found in this report: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-06-26/roe-v-wade-australia-abortion-law-access-not-guaranteed/101183518.
See also the MSI assessment of the law and services across Australia here: https://www.mariestopes.org.au/advocacy-policy/abortion-access-scorecard-australia/