Time To 'Right A Wrong': MPs Debate Abortion Decriminalisation Bill

A push to change "cruel" abortion laws is "important and overdue", the NSW Health Minister says, as the state parliament debates the controversial legislation.

Health Minister Braz Hazzard has urged his parliamentary colleagues to support the bill, which he claimed would "right a wrong", as protests raged outside the building from demonstrators on both sides of the debate.

The state parliament's upper house voted to hold a short inquiry into the private member's bill to decriminalise abortion on Tuesday afternoon.

The 'social issues committee' will run the inquiry, with a report due by August 20.

Introduced by independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich, the bill proposes allowing for terminations on request by a registered doctor for up to 22 weeks gestation. It would also permit terminations after that period, if two doctors "consider that, in all the circumstances, [it] should be performed".

Kicking off debate in the lower house on Tuesday, Hazzard said the legislation represents "important and overdue reform" of a law enacted more than 100 years ago when all legislators were men.

Brad Hazzard kicks off debate in the lower house. Photo: AAP

"We have the opportunity to right a wrong enacted in the law 119 years ago, a law that no one has had the courage since to change," he told the lower house. 

The Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019 seeks to remove three sections from the NSW Crimes Act which make it a crime for women to seek “unlawful” abortions, and also to perform those procedures.

These provisions were incorporated into the Act in 1900, and around Australia, such regulations only remain in NSW and South Australia. Despite this, abortions are routinely conducted and prosecutions are rare, after a judge ruled that abortions may be undertaken lawfully, and are not criminal in almost all cases.

Hazzard said it was disturbing that framework for abortion was still contained in the Act.

"I ask all honourable members whether it is acceptable -- whether it's conscionable -- that in making this major life decision, women and their doctors have to do so with the threat of being charged with a criminal offence," he said.

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Hazzard noted all jurisdictions have moved to reform laws on abortion except NSW where there is no statutory recognition that the termination of a pregnancy is a lawful medical procedure.

"I strongly believe women in NSW are entitled to the same legal provisions that exist across Australia, when it comes to terminations being dealt with as a medical and healthcare practice, rather than being dealt with a criminal lens," he said. 

The proposed legislation is co-sponsored by 15 politicians from across the political spectrum, including Hazzard, and has the backing of the Australian Medical Association.

Up to 70 organisations and services across health, safety, legal and women’s sectors have signed an open letter -- led by the Human Rights Law Centre and NSW Pro-Choice alliance -- showing their support for the bill.

Coalition and Labor MPs are being given a conscience vote on the bill, which has the support of Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Transport Minister Andrew Constance and opposition treasury spokesman Walt Secord, among others.

Treasurer Dominic Perrottet, Finance Minister Damien Tudehope and Riverstone MP Kevin Conolly oppose the draft legislation.

Speaking to the lower house "on behalf of unborn children", Connolly said while he is pro-choice he could not support the bill that was introduced with "the minimum possible notice".

"There are a number of aspects to this bill which do not reflect the current law but rather change it," he told parliament, referring to late-term abortions and the rights of doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion.

"The bill is not just about the decriminalisation of abortion -- it's about the expansion of the practice of abortion," he said.

Pro-choice advocates hold signs outside NSW Parliament. Photo: AAP

Earlier, Hazzard noted concerns about late-term abortions but said the bill had a stricter provision than currently existed in NSW.

"I absolutely refute the spurious arguments being put around about abortion up until the day of birth, for no reason at all," he said.

"Doctors have ethical and professional obligations that ensure they will not facilitate late-term abortions unless there is a compelling, clinical need."

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Ahead of debate on Tuesday, hundreds of pro-choice protesters were met with opponents of the legislation, who staged an overnight protest vigil outside NSW Parliament.

Signs reading "women deserve better than abortion" were held up among those stating "mind your own uterus" and "trust women".

Labor's families spokeswoman Penny Sharpe was among the MPs who addressed the crowd of abortion supporters.

"Women in NSW are not criminals for making decisions about their own bodies," she said, thanking those women who have shared stories about abortions as part of the #arrestus online campaign.

“If this law is not passed today or this week, it does not mean that abortions will stop in this state, it means that they will continue in a legal grey area where women are criminalised,” she said on Tuesday morning. 

Anti-abortion advocates seen during a rally outside the New South Wales Parliament house in Sydney. Photo: AAP

Labor MPs Trish Doyle and Yasmin Catley, Nationals MP Leslie Williams and Greens MP Jenny Leong also spoke in support of the bill in parliament on Tuesday.

Leong, who is one of the bill co-sponsors, said the choice to have a child or not is "our decision and our decision alone".

"As I make this speech, I can hear the echoes of the voices chanting from this morning’s pro choice rally, adding to the voices before them:

"‘Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate’."

With AAP

Featured image: AAP