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pro-choice or pro-life? criminalisation doesn’t work

by Elizabeth Mathews
01 December 2009
Regardless of whether you support or oppose abortion, its criminalisation fails to address the root causes of unwanted pregnancy and is instead ruining young lives, writes Elizabeth Mathews.

Panic. Fear. Isolation. These make up the roller coaster of emotions many women experience when they discover they have an unwanted pregnancy. Life plans are discarded, picked up and then thrown aside again just as quickly as indecision runs riot in an area where decisions are all too final.

Earlier this year, Tegan Leach, 19, and her boyfriend, Sergie Brennan, 21, both from Cairns, went through this unbelievably difficult process and came to a decision. The Queensland couple decided they did not want to continue with the pregnancy. So Sergie organised for the abortion drugs Milofian and Misoprostol to be brought to Australia and Tegan took them, inducing a miscarriage.

Unfortunately for Tegan and Sergie, Queensland’s Criminal Code makes an abortion lawful only where it is performed by a doctor and where there is a serious risk to the physical or mental health of the mother. That means that this couple are now facing the prospect of years behind bars when they should be enjoying the best years of their life.

Frankly, I do not believe this was the best, or even an appropriate response to the actions of a frightened young woman. Tegan has suffered enough already without a prison sentence running another wrecking ball through her life.

Queensland needs, for once, to be a leader in law reform and follow in the footsteps of Victoria in decriminalising abortion.

Now, let me make myself clear. This is not an article about whether abortion is good or bad or whether people should be pro-choice or pro-life or pro-anything else. This is about whether the response we have in place right now achieves anything at all, no matter which camp you fall into.

So what exactly is the justification for our present laws?

The main reason usually given by the majority in Parliament who support them is that they act as a deterrent to increasing abortion rates. However, there seems to be little empirical evidence to back up this rationale.

Firstly, criminalisation doesn’t address the root causes of abortion. According to a 2005 study in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, the top reasons women in the United States chose to terminate their pregnancies included interference with their work, education or ability to care for dependants (74%), financial constraints (73%) and the prospect of single motherhood or relationship problems (48%).

Surely, a more effective means of reducing abortion rates would be to address these issues, rather than punishing women after the fact.

Surely, a more effective means of reducing abortion rates would be to address these issues, rather than punishing women after the fact. Looking at these numbers, it seems that advocates of the current laws would be better served by promoting paid maternity leave, better support for school-age mums and eliminating the social stigma of single motherhood than supporting prison sentences.

Secondly, removing the current laws would not necessarily result in any increase in abortion rates.

In fact, a 2001 study in European Journal of Public Health on the decriminalisation of abortion in Spain has shown that removing a criminal penalty did nothing to affect trends in abortion rates. All that changed, the authors conclude, was a reduction in, “the inequalities implied by a lack of access to proper healthcare services”.

On the other hand, all that the criminalisation of abortion does is to force frightened women into dangerous situations, which could ruin their lives forever.

Many people forget that a gaol sentence does more than deprive a young woman of liberty – it will affect her for the rest of her life. Should Tegan Leach be convicted, she will never be able to become a teacher, policewoman or a lawyer. She will never be able to travel to the United States. Should her gaol term exceed five years, she will be unable to vote in Commonwealth elections. In essence, she will be denied many of the opportunities our society regards as rights on the basis of a law that 64% of Queenslanders are opposed to.

Tegan, and women in her situation, need support to help them make the decision which is best for them, not punishment. Victoria’s done it: so can other states.

So, to those in the Queensland Parliament who oppose the decriminalisation of abortion, I ask you, please reconsider – the next generation of young women will thank you.

Elizabeth Mathews is a Policy Offer at Left Right Think-Tank, Australia’s first independent and non-partisan think-tank of young minds.