Abortion bill in New South Wales a global first

Freedom of conscience conditional upon gestational age

Sean Murphy*

The Legislative Assembly in New South Wales, Australia, has passed a bill decriminalizing abortion. It is obviously modelled on Queensland’s Termination of Pregnancy Act 2018.

The Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019 permits abortion up to 22 weeks gestation for any reason; no medical indications are required (Section 5).  Abortion after 22 weeks gestation may be performed for any reason that two practitioners find acceptable (Section6(1)a), including current and future “social circumstances” (6(3)b).

A provision for conscientious objection requires disclosure of objections to abortion by a practitioner when asked by someone (not necessarily a patient) to perform or assist in the performance of an abortion on someone else, to make a decision about whether an abortion should be provided for someone else who is over 22 weeks pregnant (Section 6), or to advise about the performance of an abortion on someone else.

When a woman up to 22 weeks pregnant wants an abortion or advice about an abortion, an objecting practitioner is required to explain how she can contact a non-objecting practitioner, or transfer the care of the patient to a practitioner willing to provide an abortion, or to an agency (health service provider) where an abortion can be provided. 

If the woman is over 22 weeks pregnant, a practitioner is obliged to disclose objections to abortion but, if not convinced that the abortion should be performed, is not obliged to facilitate the abortion by explaining how she can contact a non-objecting practitioner or by a transfer of care to a willing colleague (Section 9(3)).

Practitioners who object to abortion in principle and those who object in particular cases are often unwilling to facilitate the procedure by referral, transfers of care or other means because they believe that this makes them parties to or complicit in an immoral act.  Thus, the provision for conscientious objection in the bill actually suppresses the exercise of freedom of conscience by these practitioners with respect to abortions up to 22 weeks gestation.

On this point Queensland’s Termination of Pregnancy Act, while it also suppresses the exercise of freedom of conscience by physicians who object to referral for abortion, at least does so consistently from conception to birth.

It is possible that the wording of this provision has been been muddled in New South Wales either in an attempt to put an end to the idea that only women can become pregnant, or to avoid the possibility that abortion might not be available to a woman who believes that she is a man, or who believes that she is neither a woman nor a man, but who becomes pregnant.

In any case, New South Wales may become the first jurisdiction to make the exercise of freedom of conscience in relation to abortion conditional upon the gestational age of an embryo or foetus.  If the bill passes, a physician will be free to fully exercise freedom of conscience at 22 weeks plus one day, but not at 22 weeks minus one day.  The inexact calculation of gestational age contributes further to the arbitrariness of this restriction of fundamental human freedom.

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