The Ripple Effect

The Ripple Effect

by Terry Bellamak

 Last week, supporters of reproductive rights in Aotearoa had an historic victory. Parliament voted to reform our abortion legislation to recognise a pregnant people’s right to bodily autonomy up to 20 weeks, and to streamline abortion care, bringing it into line with international best practice. This is a change campaigners like Dame Margaret Sparrow have been working towards for over four decades.

These changes are a huge step forward for New Zealand. Pregnant people will be able to refer themselves to an abortion service without having to go through their GP as a gatekeeper. Early medical abortions can be completed at home. The Director-General of Health will be responsible for ensuring equitable access to abortion care and emergency contraception across the country.

The bill is not perfect. Health practitioners will still be allowed to refuse contraception without warning or notice. Safe areas did not make it into the bill, which may dissuade health practitioners from providing abortion care in small communities.

But the perfect should not be the enemy of good. We will continue fighting for improvements to our law, but this victory will do more than just change New Zealand.

The passage of the Abortion Legislation Bill is part of a larger story. It’s a story of change on an international scale. Around the world, nations are recognising the rights of women and pregnant people to refuse pregnancy. Each law change is another stone in the pond sending ripples across the globe.

When the Republic of Ireland succeeded in changing its constitution to allow for abortion law reform, it created a lot of ripples. Countries like New Zealand, Germany, and Argentina noticed that suddenly Ireland – Ireland, of all places! – had more sensible and liberal abortion laws than we did. Suddenly our longstanding legislative compromises did not look as reasonable or necessary.

Now, the change we have made to our old, retrograde laws has sent out new ripples. An editorial in a Jamaican newspaper has cited New Zealand’s decriminalisation to argue for abortion law reform there. And so it continues.

The Rev. Martin Luther King said the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. If he is right, and I hope he is, then abortion law reform in Aotearoa will give rise to many more celebrations around the world, as the human right of bodily autonomy is recognised more and more widely.

Anti-abortion Scaremongering: Reproductive Coercion

Anti-abortion Scaremongering: Reproductive Coercion

by Terry Bellamak

Reproductive coercion is what happens when someone overcomes another person’s reproductive decisions through intimidation or force. It can take many forms, like forcing someone to become or remain pregnant, forcing them to seek abortion care, or forcing them to give up their newborn for adoption.

Forced adoption was how the old “mother and baby homes” worked back in the 20c. Single motherhood was so stigmatised back then that parents would send their pregnant children to such places to save the family’s reputation. They would stay there, alone and far from family, until they gave birth. Then the baby would be forcibly taken from them and put up for adoption. The fact that adoption is still so disfavoured hints at how terrible it must have been for pregnant people to have their babies literally stolen from them.

Of the other types of reproductive coercion, forcing someone to become or remain pregnant is the most common sort, according to research by NZ Womens’ Refuge. It is also insidious, because it can occur outside the view of anyone in a position to help the pregnant person.

This kind of coercion can include hiding or sabotaging contraception, or sexual assault – reinforced by the isolating tactics abusers use to control their partners, like not letting them use the car, monitoring their phone, or other types of physical control. It can include emotional abuse, like shaming someone for wanting to receive abortion care.

Abusers can perpetrate this kind of abuse behind closed doors, away from anyone else’s view. Keeping a pregnant person away from the health system until their 20th week, when abortion becomes more restricted, is not nearly difficult enough.

In many cases, the purpose of such behaviour is to trap the partner in a relationship. Once a child is born, the pregnant person is forever tied to the abuser.

Forcing someone to receive abortion care is about half as prevalent as forcing someone to remain pregnant. Fortunately, the health system is in the position to ask about reproductive coercion before someone receives abortion care. Part of the standard practice for receiving fully informed consent is to get the person alone to talk about whether they really want an abortion.

It can also be an opportunity to have a discussion about leaving the abusive partner, and accessing services to help make that happen. The pregnant person may not be ready to leave yet, but the conversation has to start somewhere.

Anti-abortion forces are very concerned about reproductive coercion.

But the only kind they ever talk about is the less common kind of reproductive coercion – the kind where a person is pressured into receiving abortion care against their will.

You would almost think it’s the only kind they disapprove of.

Anti-abortion Scaremongering: Informed Consent

Anti-abortion Scaremongering: Informed Consent

by Terry Bellamak

Informed consent is a big deal in health circles. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act recognises the right to refuse medical care. That right cannot be fully exercised without the full information about the medical condition, and treatment options.

The NZMA Code of Ethics requires doctors to accept this principle of ethical behaviour: “Respect the rights, autonomy and freedom of choice of the patient,” and makes doctors responsible for providing information needed for the patient to exercise informed consent.

The Abortion Supervisory Committee’s Standards of Care for Women Requesting Abortion Care in Aotearoa New Zealand is even more specific about the information people must be given as they make the decision whether to receive abortion care:

Women should be offered the following information to assist in their decision and abortion experience:

  • Basic anatomy and physiology as relevant to their gestation
  • An understanding of the process of abortion and its possible complications
  • Fetal development (which may include showing pictures of the stage of fetal development)
  • Information about the advantages of having an abortion earlier rather than later in a pregnancy and the differences between a medical and surgical abortion
  • Products of conception – kai atawhai or disposal options
  • An understanding of how people make sense of the loss of conception in abortion, grief and loss processes, and variabilities within a contemporary cultural context in Aotearoa
  • Contraception education

It’s clear informed consent is important in abortion care.

So why are abortion opponents on about informed consent being inadequate? What is missing?

Hard to say, because abortion opponents are not very specific about what improvements they believe we need to make to the informed consent process. They sometimes talk about ‘life affirming supports and services’ or ‘waiting time to think of alternatives’ or ‘warning them about the adverse effects of abortion.’

Am I the only one to whom ‘life affirming supports and services’ sounds like ‘talk people out of receiving abortion care’? Biased counselling is something nobody actually wants except those with a bias.

Same with ‘waiting time to think of alternatives’. Pregnant people are pregnant, not stupid. The alternatives are abortion, childbirth followed by adoption, and childbirth following by raising the child. Waiting periods add to the expense and delay in receiving abortion care, especially for people who live far from abortion services. Look no farther than Ireland for evidence of their uselessness.

And the ‘adverse effects’ are mythical. Abortion is safe, routine health care –14 times safer than childbirth. Longitudinal studies have shown 95% of people do not regret their abortions, and adverse life consequences like anxiety and financial trouble are more closely associated with NOT receiving abortion care. Abortion does not cause breast cancer.

It seems to me the problem abortion opponents have with informed consent is what it leaves out: an anti-abortion hard sell, of the sort required in certain American states with TRAP (Targeted Regulations against Abortion Providers) laws. The documentary TRAPPED shows doctors in Alabama forced to read a script prepared by the state legislature, full of unscientific nonsense, before they can provide care. Doctors preface the script by telling patients everything they are about to read to them is false, so as to fulfil their ethical obligations not to lie to their patients.

New Zealanders don’t want a bar of that. We want informed consent to be actual medical information. Which is what it is now, and will continue to be, for abortions as for other forms of health care.

ALRANZ’s Field Guide to SOPs

ALRANZ’s Field Guide to SOPs

by Terry Bellamak

***UPDATED***

The Abortion Legislation Bill has now passed second reading.

The next step in the legislative process will be the Committee of the whole House. That’s the free for all where MPs debate themselves hoarse over possible changes to the bill. These proposed changes are set out in Supplementary Order Papers, or SOPs. Any MP who thinks the bill can be improved is able to submit an SOP.

One of the original purposes of the Abortion Legislation Bill was to take abortion out of a legal framework and put it into a health framework where it belongs. This is an excellent impulse. Doctors and lawyers (and lawmakers) should really not attempt to practice each other’s profession. It never ends well.

Some SOPs on the list attempt to roll back decisions already made, for better or worse. Others try to constrain the practice of medicine within limits MPs think they understand.

Medicine has been called part science and part art, because each case is unique and individual, with a vast panoply of variables a doctor must consider when forming a professional opinion.

Lawyers and lawmakers are engaged in a process that combines people and situations in order to make up rules that apply to whole categories. They do not operate at the level of individual cases.

When lawmakers try to constrain the practice of medicine, they invariably come up with overly prescriptive approaches guaranteed to work badly in at least some cases. This attempt to constrain the medical profession arises from a fundamental distrust of medical judgment – that is why lawmakers take the decisions out of doctors’ hands.

A big problem arises on the flip side of this coin, where doctors attempt to interpret the law so as not to break it and draw legal penalties upon themselves. This is how you get 40 years of certifying consultants pretending to believe their patients when they say their mental health will be unstable unless they can receive abortion care.

It could be worse. This is also how people like Savita Halappanavar die. Irish doctors refused to end her wanted but doomed pregnancy while the foetus had a heartbeat, even though the law as written would supposedly have allowed an abortion to save her life. But the penalty for making a mistake was 14 years in jail. Who feels comfortable taking that kind of risk? And so Savita died.

So keep a close eye on SOPs and legislative provisions that seek to constrain a profession in which most MPs have no training.

 

The Abortion Legislation Bill has 10 SOPs so far, and may get more. Here is ALRANZ’s handy guide to the Abortion Legislation Bill’s SOPs. Parliament does not give SOPs very descriptive names, so we will name them, for easier reference. We will update the list as more SOPs are put forward.

 

The Option A SOP

Jan Logie’s SOP would remove the regulations about abortions after 20 weeks, and let health practitioners practice medicine without legislative interference. All abortions would be a matter between a pregnant person and their health practitioner(s) of choice. The only folks who have a problem with it are those who think women are childish flibbertigibbets who change their minds about parenthood at 30 weeks, and health practitioners are Bond villains who have no ethical standards. So, misogynists and misanthropists.

 

The Referendum SOP

Darroch Bell submitted this SOP to give effect to New Zealand First’s determination not to touch abortion law reform with a barge pole if they can avoid it (Tracey Martin excepted). This says if Parliament approves the bill, it must go to a referendum and achieve the approval of a majority of voters. But we say that putting human rights to a popular vote is lazy lawmaking (not to mention morally unpalatable). Parliament created the convoluted law that got us into this mess, so Parliament can get us out of it.

 

The Trans Inclusive SOP

This SOP from Jan Logie acknowledges the existence of trans men and non-binary people, who are capable of becoming pregnant and are not women. We support this 100%. You should too.

 

The Assault on Pregnant People SOP

Jan Logie’s SOP returns the consent of the pregnant person to the centre of the question of whether killing an unborn child is illegal. If the pregnant person does not consent to the ‘assault’, then it is criminal. If they consent, it is not. This means someone who provides an abortion to a willing person may be guilty of practicing medicine without a license, but they would not be guilty under s 182 of the Crimes Act unless the person was unwilling.

 

The No Safe Areas SOP

David Seymour is very keen on freedom of expression, and believes safe areas are too great a burden on it. This SOP’s Explanatory Note draws a distinction between the United States and New Zealand, saying it’s not as bad here, so we don’t need safe areas. But ‘not that bad’ isn’t the same as good – anti-abortion harassment is already common, as anyone who has walked by an abortion provider lately has probably noticed – and things change quickly, as events in the House at second reading demonstrate. An abortion opponent was ejected from the Gallery for heckling an MP, the Speaker had to rebuke other anti-abortion people in the Gallery several times, and outside the House abortion opponents were parading around with gruesome pictures on signs. All signals point to escalation, and it would be nice not to have to go back to Parliament for an amendment when the harassment gets even worse.

 

The No Abortion for Gender or Disability SOP

One of the purposes of the Abortion Legislation Bill was to decriminalise pregnant people and health practitioners who provide abortion care in good faith, so that they have professional penalties rather than criminal ones hanging over them if they make a mistake. Melissa Lee has devised an SOP to re-criminalise health practitioners and allow Parliament to collectively practice medicine. If a ‘person’ (which includes health practitioners, but is not limited to them, raising the question of who Lee thinks provides abortions) has a reasonable belief that the pregnant person to whom they mean to provide abortion care is aborting because of the gender of the foetus or because the foetus has a disability that will not prove fatal before 29 days, then they can face seven years in the slammer. So unless the health practitioner can read minds or accurately predict the future, they could end up in jail. Oh, and if the health practitioner does not advise their patient about these restrictions in writing, they could be subject to a $10,000 fine. What could possibly go wrong?

 

The Return of the Certifying Consultants SOP

Early medical and early surgical abortions are among the safest medical procedures around. You are more likely to suffer complications from getting your wisdom teeth removed. But this SOP from Agnes Loheni trades on the myth that abortion is dangerous. Studies in the United States have shown health practitioners other than OB/GYNs can provide abortions just as safely as OB/GYNs. That is why the Abortion Legislation Bill would allow properly trained nurse practitioners and midwives to provide them. This SOP would require early surgical abortions to be provided by OB/GYNs or GPs qualified in Obstetrics, making improving access difficult due to lack of providers. It would also require the provider to ‘certify’ the gestational age of the foetus. After 20 weeks, we are back to two certifying consultants, and these abortions can only be provided before a foetus has ‘reached viability.’ That word choice assumes viability is inevitable, but viability is something not all foetuses are capable of reaching. It is unclear whether ‘reaching viability’ applies to the passage of time or the fitness of the foetus. This could lead to unforeseen consequences that could prove fatal to pregnant people. Bad idea.

 

The Foetal Pain SOP

The Journal of the American Medical Association is on record saying “Evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” that is, before week 27 or 28. So Agnes Loheni has devised an SOP that adds unnecessary steps and opportunities for complications to the abortion process after 20 weeks by requiring doctors to sedate foetuses in utero. Never mind that most abortions after 20 weeks are accomplished via induced labour, and no one is suggesting pain relief for foetuses undergoing birth. (Yet.) Here is another clear example of a lawmaker trying hard to practice medicine, or at least tell doctors how to practice medicine.

 

The Parental Consent SOP

Joanne Hayes has submitted an SOP, the subject of which is a perennial favourite among those who consider children the property of their parents. It would amend the Care of Children Act 2004 to repeal a minor’s right to consent to an abortion as though they were of age. The reasons this is such a terrible idea have been canvassed many times before, most recently by the New Zealand Parliament in 2015. The National-led government of the day rejected parental notification or consent because most teens tell their parents about their pregnancies, and those who don’t have very good reason not to, often fear of abuse, homelessness, or homicide. Placing more barriers upon the teens most in need of support is not kind.

 

The Redundant SOP

Another SOP from Joanne Hayes purports to protect a “woman who is not competent to make an informed choice and give informed consent.” Seems pretty innocuous, right? What it appears to be, however, is an attempt to achieve parental consent by stealth. The determination of whether the person has capacity would rest in the hands of the health practitioner. The Explanatory Note invites them to consider whether the patient lacks capacity “due to their very young age or their intellectual disability.” Youth is the most obvious factor that would be up to the judgment of a health practitioner, since the existence of an intellectual disability would likely be noted elsewhere in the patient’s records, unless Hayes is envisioning the health practitioner making findings of lack of capacity for intellectual disability on the fly. The result of finding the pregnant person lacks capacity to give informed consent would be to place the decision in the hands of their legal guardian, or a court or agent of the court. There is not even a provision allowing a minor to appeal the health practitioner’s assessment (except perhaps the High Court – yeah, that’ll happen), making the SOP maximally disempowering.

 

The Data SOP

Simeon Brown wants ALL the data. The bill requires the Director-General to collect data and publish it in a report once a year. The Director-General is also required to collect much more granular and intrusive data from abortion providers, but only for the first 18 months. Brown wants the Director-General to publish that granular data, and publish it annually, forever. The bill states the data must not identify patients, but is unclear whether this data can be linked back to a particular provider. It is also unclear whether some of the providers may provide so few abortions that the identity of their patients may be guessable from the data. It requires providers to tick a box to confirm they told the pregnant person about accessing counselling. That seems unnecessary. The SOP would also require providers to supply “any relevant information pertaining to the woman’s physical health, mental health, and wellbeing.” That’s pretty open-ended. Relevant to what exactly? How will this data actually be used?

 

The Cultural Respect SOPs

Alfred Ngaro and Harete Hipango have both submitted SOPs that would require providers to recognise the pregnant person’s ethnic background, and their cultural, ethical, and spiritual beliefs. Hipango’s is centred on the Treaty of Waitangi. Ngaro’s requires health practitioners to provide translators if English is not the patient’s native language. They both sound really good. On the whole, we prefer Hipango’s version, because it does a better job of centring its principles on the wellbeing of the pregnant person. The importance of a person’s culture, whanau, religion, and community are for the them to determine, and the health system should respect and support their view.

 

The Offensive Language SOP

This SOP from Nicky Wagner rewrites the section of the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Bill to removes references to “mentally subnormal females.” Fair enough, this kind of language stopped being OK ages ago.

The Rape Survivor Exception SOP

Under current law, and under the bill, health practitioners are allowed to obstruct anyone’s access to reproductive health care. That’s pretty crappy, but the in the case of sexual violence survivors who want emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy, it is senseless and wrong. The last thing they need is more trauma and stigma from doctors or pharmacists who don’t like certain aspects of their jobs. This is a very special case, and the need for this should be totally obvious. Louisa Wall’s SOP would prevent health practitioners obstructing a survivor’s access to EC.

 

The Closest Provider SOP

With this SOP, Ruth Dyson very neatly turns a crappy section of the bill into a great one. The bill currently requires health practitioners who obstruct patients’ access to reproductive health care to tell them how to access an actual provider of the service. But it wouldn’t be very helpful if you were in Whangarei, and your obstructing health practitioner told you about a provider in Invercargill. This SOP requires them to tell people how to access the contact details of the closest provider. That’s probably what the drafters always meant, but there is so much deception and bad faith in the world that it helps to spell it out.

 

The Disclosure SOP

Under both current law and the bill, health practitioners who obstruct access to reproductive health don’t have to tell you they conscientiously obstruct until you ask for a service they refuse to provide. By then it’s too late – you’re already in a consultation you will be expected to pay for even though you derive no benefit from it, plus there’s all the time you spent developing a professional relationship with a doctor you might not want to continue with. This is unfair to patients. No one is expecting health practitioners to provide services they don’t wish to, but informing their patients at a time when people can do something about it (specifically when they call to sign on, and on websites and on signs on the premises) is small concession to patients’ right to informed consent. Thank you, Dr Deborah Russell, for a very sensible SOP.

 

The Other Safe Areas SOP

Marama Davidson’s SOP would make prohibited behaviour in a safe area an infringement rather than a crime. It would also allow providers to apply for safe areas prospectively. Hopefully this will assuage concerns in some quarters around freedom of expression, and make safe areas more accessible. The Ministry of Health are planning to increase access to reproductive health care, especially in areas that are currently underserved. Knowing they can be protected from harassment from the start will surely give smaller providers more confidence.

 

The Retrograde SOP

Back in 2010 the High Court decided Hallagan v NZMC. That case established that under the current law, doctors don’t have to help their patients by referring them to other doctors who provide the services to which they obstruct access. The NZMC could have appealed the case, but didn’t. And here we are with a new bill that takes the tiny step of requiring health practitioners to tell people how to access a list of providers of the services they obstruct. But apparently that is too much for Chris Penk, who wants to keep the current situation, in which health practitioners don’t have to do anything but let their patients know care is available … somewhere. It also weakens the protections for employers who need professionals who don’t object to doing their jobs.

Anti-abortion Scaremongering: Abortions at Later Gestations

Anti-abortion Scaremongering: Abortions at Later Gestations

By Terry Bellamak

The recent Abortion Legislation Select Committee heard from a lot of anti-abortion folks, repeating the same distorted lines they always use. 

“Abortions will be available up until birth, for any reason!” was a favourite. Let’s deconstruct this dog whistle.

The first shock comes from the “up to birth” part. It implies a healthy, viable pregnancy right up to the moment of the abortion. For shock value, it would have to – after all, a non-viable pregnancy should be (and generally is) terminated when it is best for the patient – the pregnant person. And fair enough. 

Viable foetuses are not aborted, they are born. Even in cases where the pregnant person’s health is in danger doctors will try and delay birth as long as possible, to give the foetus the best possible chance at survival. These are wanted pregnancies. Why is that so hard to understand?

The second shock, “for any reason,” is the REALLY misleading part. The implication is that those viable foetuses are being aborted for bad, irresponsible reasons. That is the essence of the shock, and the nexus of the lie.

People do not just up and decide they are tired of being pregnant at 30 weeks. Anyone who actually believes they do clearly subscribes to misogynistic stereotypes of women as childish, selfish, fickle, and irresponsible. Anyone who actually believes doctors would collude in such a practice, even if it were requested, clearly demonstrates a deep mistrust of medicine, science, and perhaps intellectualism in general. 

In reality, abortions at later gestations happen because of some crisis: the foetus has a medical condition incompatible with life, or the pregnant person’s life is in danger, from the pregnancy itself, or for some other reason, like cancer. That’s why you don’t see changes in abortion rates at later gestations, even as the abortion rate has trended downward over the years: they are not driven by demand, but by medical necessity. 

Abortion care at later gestations is a big deal – it happens in hospitals in main centres, with specialist care at the ready. Who actually believes the health system would be pulling out all the stops to provide such care just because someone wants to go on holiday or wear a slinky dress? It can take weeks or even months to physically recover from termination at a later gestation, so the patient wouldn’t even be able to enjoy that holiday. The idea that people would even do this defies logic, reason, and medical ethics.

Here’s the kicker: abortions are already available up until birth, for fatal foetal abnormality and to preserve the health of the pregnant person, as they must be in a functioning health system that does not allow people to die like Savita Halappanavar did.

But you have to appreciate the cynical usefulness of that particular myth. It takes only a second to speak the sentence at the top of this article, but it takes a whole article to explain why it’s a load of bollocks. Touche.

The Abortion Legislation Select Committee Reports Back: Bismarck Vindicated

The Abortion Legislation Select Committee Reports Back: Bismarck Vindicated

by Terry Bellamak

According to Bismarck, you should never watch sausages or laws being made, because it will gross you out. He’s got a point.

The Abortion Legislation Select Committee has reported back. It has made a few changes to the bill. Not all the changes it has made are positive.

Let’s start with the good. 

Section 20A creates a positive duty on the part of the Minister of Health to ensure reproductive health services and counselling related to reproductive health are available throughout New Zealand, and are provided in accordance with the Standards of Care. 

This is really good stuff. Some countries, like Canada, have had liberal legal regimes for reproductive health care, but access has been a problem in remote places. Hopefully, that will not be the case here in New Zealand.

Section 15(3) improves the test for ‘prohibited behaviour’ in safe areas. Now, instead of having to prove the offender intended to cause distress, it’s enough to show either that the offender obstructed the person ‘with the intention of frustrating the purpose’ for which they were at the medical clinic, or ‘in a manner that an ordinary reasonable person would know would cause emotional distress to a protected person.’ 

This is much more sensible and focused.

Moving on to the merely meh. 

Section 17(3) says safe areas are to be reviewed after five years, to see if they are still necessary. Remember, the bill requires abortion providers to get an Order in Council to establish a safe area. The government has consistently handled safe areas as though they were radioactive, and this addition continues that approach. 

Is the government waiting for something terrible to happen so that the political will for a sensible, practical approach to safe areas will materialise? Look closer – it’s here already. Nobody wants to see abortion providers and pregnant people treated as collateral damage, nor their distress regarded as regrettable but necessary to establish the need for an Order in Council to create a safe area.

Section 20C(2) gives abortion providers the option of not being listed on the list of abortion providers the Director-General is required to maintain. This means that people seeking abortion care will not know about all of the choices available to them, including some that may be easier for them to access. It means the government anticipates some providers may not want it generally known that they provide abortion care. 

Why would that be? That wouldn’t have anything to do with harassment outside abortion services, would it? Too bad the legal system can’t do anything about that without an Order in Council.

And now we arrive at the just plain bad. 

Section 11(2) adds more restrictions around abortion after 20 weeks gestation. People forced to contemplate abortions at later gestations were thrown under the bus when the government gravitated to Model C, so perhaps the select committee figures another bit of gravel won’t matter. In a move that conjures up the ghost of two certifying consultants, the health practitioner now must consult another practitioner. They must have regard to professional standards and the gestational age of the foetus, in addition to the other criteria.

The good news is that this will not change the actual practice followed in the less than 1% of abortions that occur after 20 weeks, abortions which result from medical necessity rather than choice. The bad news is, the select committee believes they could not progress this bill without a sop to MPs who really believe women are intellectually and morally inferior to men, and can’t be trusted with bodily autonomy after 20 weeks. The terrible news is, they might be right.

Section 20F requires the Director-General to report on sex selective abortions every five years. There is no evidence sex selective abortions are occurring in New Zealand. I suspect it will be a short report. 

But the requirement wastes time and money on some MPs’ fertile imaginations.

Section 19, conscientious obstruction of access to reproductive health care, still does not require disclosure of the intent to obstruct before the service is requested. That is too late – people will still be required to pay for a consultations from which they derive no benefit, and may be subjected to an offensive lecture about their sexual morality.

According to the bill, a health practitioner’s ‘conscience’ still outweighs a patient’s right to make an informed choice whether to continue a professional relationship with someone who intends to leave them in the lurch.

And finally, a change I can hardly believe.

Section 5 of the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977 is amended to specifically allow conscientious obstruction in cases of sexual assault, bringing it in line with the rest of the bill. You read that right.

With this section, the government puts sexual violence survivors on notice that their health and wellbeing is secondary to the ‘right’ of health practitioners to refuse them emergency contraception. 

To be clear, this does not change current practice – health practitioners can already refuse to help survivors with emergency contraception. That is precisely the problem.

Sexual violence survivors are already in terrible situation. They should not have to run around from pillar to post trying to find someone who will provide emergency contraception so that they do not face an unwanted pregnancy, which they will then have to decide whether to terminate.

The bill should set out that cases of sexual violence are medical emergencies, which means conscientious obstruction rules do not apply. Section 19(3) requires health practitioners to help people in a medical emergency. 

And fair enough – emergency contraception is extremely time-sensitive, and must be taken within 72 hours. If the goal is to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, then this is a medical emergency. 

 

The Abortion Legislation Bill is far from perfect. Our current abortion law is one of the most draconian in the OECD. The new one would still leave us on the strict end of the scale. But it is such a major improvement on the ridiculous and dysfunctional system we now have that it would be unconscionable for Parliament not to pass the bill. 

On Tuesday 18 February, we will be giving this message to Parliament, loud and clear. Come join us for the National Day of Action – Our Bodies, Our Choice. See you there!