Experts Slam 'Insulting' Misinformation About Abortion Decriminalisation Bill

As debate intensifies around decriminalising abortion in NSW, the state's peak medical body is accusing opponents of "unfounded fearmongering". 

MPs continued to debate a bill in the lower house on Wednesday which seeks to remove abortion from the state's criminal code, instead placing it into an appropriate healthcare framework.

In its current form, the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019  would allow terminations up to 22 weeks, as well as abortions at later stages if two doctors agree the termination should be performed under the circumstances.

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman and Planning Minister Rob Stokes are among those who have drafted amendments to the bill, which mainly focus on the regulation and performance of late-term abortions.

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

They have been slammed by the NSW Australian Medical Association (AMA NSW) as both "unnecessary" and "insulting" requirements which undermine the medical profession, and would put both women and doctors at further risk.

"The amendments being floated within the Parliament would seek to regulate and control the action of doctors and women and delay treatment for people who need it," AMA (NSW) said in a statement on Wednesday.

This isn't the first time doctors, lawyers or politicians who support the bill have accused its critics of spreading misinformation.

So, as debate continues in state parliament, here's what you need to know.

What Is Currently In The Bill?

The Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019 seeks to remove three sections from the Crimes Act 1900 which make it a crime for women to seek “unlawful” abortions, and also to perform those procedures.

Around Australia, such regulations only remain in NSW and South Australia. Despite this, abortions are routinely conducted and prosecutions are rare, after a series of court judgements have ruled that abortions may be undertaken lawfully, and are not criminal in almost all cases.

Nevertheless, NSW Health Minister on Tuesday said it was "disturbing" such a framework for abortion was still contained in the Act.

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

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.

Beyond 22 weeks, terminations would be permitted if two doctors "consider that, in all the circumstances, [it] should be performed".

Emergency provisions would allow a doctor to perform an abortion beyond 22 weeks without consulting a second doctor to save the life of a woman or another fetus.

Few abortions happen after 22 weeks and are typically needed for women in distressing and complex situations.

According to the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) a late abortion "is only ever performed when there is a compelling clinical need” and that the bill will not change “current clinical practice".

What Do Some MPs Want Changed?

Speaking in state parliament on Tuesday night, the NSW Attorney-General said while he broadly supported dealing with abortion outside of criminal law, he was unsure if he could support the bill without amendment.

Speakman said the provisions in the proposed amendments would "maintain choice" but also put in place some "modest safeguards" to address community concerns.

But the AMA said the amendments "go against the spirit in which the bill was introduced -- in fact they are a perversion of it".

"[I]f voted into law, they would mean access to abortion in NSW would become very restrictive by Australian standards," it said.

The amendments put forward by Speakman and Stokes would impose additional requirements on terminations after 22 weeks, so that a woman would need the approval of a hospital advisory committee of at least four members, not two doctors as in the original bill.

Such terminations would only be performed at a public hospital or private health facilities approved by the health minister.

The AMA said this could place women, particularly those in regional and rural areas,  at significant risk of unnecessary delay and "add to their suffering".

"In the vast majority of cases, abortions after 22 weeks arise due to a significant abnormality in the foetus," it said.

"Families and their doctors already face the most difficult decision of whether to end a wanted pregnancy and these amendments would draw out that process and make it more painful."

READ MORE: 'I'm Not Ashamed About My Abortion'

Liberal MP Kevin Connolly has also proposed to reduce the gestation period from "not more than 22 weeks" to 20 weeks.

Edwina MacDonald, Sydney Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said this could also be damaging for women confronted with fatal fetal abnormalities that can only be confirmed between 20 and 22 weeks.

“It is absolutely critical that women have time to understand their options and to discuss them with medical professionals, support services, and family," she said.

"Parliament must listen to the medical experts who support the gestation period in the bill of 22 weeks.”

Other amendments would legislate doctors' requirement to provide counselling and undertake informed consent.

Both the AMA and RANZCOG said the current bill already reflects existing arrangements and good clinical practice -- including informed consent, consultation and facilitation of counselling.

RANZCOG President Dr Vijay Roach said such amendments risk to undermine confidence in the medical profession.

"The public have every reason to believe that doctors currently deliver all aspects of healthcare in a compassionate, reasoned and ethical manner," he said.

Roach said safeguards already exist and further changes could restrict a doctor's ability to deliver patient-centred, individualised care.

Where To Now?

MPs are expected to begin considering amendments -- including separate proposals by other MPs -- on Thursday after the debate in the lower house concludes.

Shelley Hancock, one of 15 co-sponsors of the bill, on Wednesday said the amendments were a "distraction" and "a way to possibly defer this bill or oppose it".

"I am always suspicious of those who seek to make amendments because I think it is always a disguised act of trying to defer, delay or defeat a bill such as this," she said.

Both the AMA (NSW) and RANZGO are encouraging the state parliament to pass the bill without amendment.

Featured image: AAP