Australia Needs Consistent Uniform National Abortion Laws To Protect Women and Doctors

AMA President, Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, said today that the charging of a doctor in NSW with manslaughter and procuring an unlawful abortion sends a clear warning to all doctors and women that they must fully understand the law in their State and Territory in regard to the termination of pregnancies.

Dr Haikerwal said the prosecution of the doctor for terminating the pregnancy within the 21-24 week period has huge repercussions for Australian women and doctors and the broader community.

"This case creates great uncertainty and confusion…and fear," Dr Haikerwal said.

"All the State and Territory Governments must clarify their laws on abortion in consultation the AMA, the whole medical profession and the public. There is a leadership role for the Federal Government, too, given its recent efforts in stirring up the abortion debate.

"The AMA is concerned that a situation could arise where doctors could be compromising patient care for fear of legal repercussions.

"Any decision on abortion is between the doctor and patient. There is no place for third parties - governments, over-zealous politicians and lawyers, hospital committees, or even the spectre of legal action.

"The decision for late term abortion is not made lightly by women or the doctors who care for them.

"Doctors need to be working in a safe and clear legal environment. It is not acceptable for doctors and their patients to not know what is required for an abortion to be considered legal.

"Australia urgently needs uniform national legislation on abortion so that access to services is safe and equitable for all Australian women," Dr Haikerwal said.

Dr Haikerwal said the inconsistencies and confusion about abortion law from State to State to Territory were clearly set out in an article last year in the Medical Journal of Australia. In the August 2004 MJA article, "Abortion: time to clarify Australia's confusing laws", L J de Crespigny and J Savulescu explain that:

  • The ACT is only jurisdiction where abortion has been removed from criminal statutes
  • WA clarified its abortion laws in 1998 but only after two doctors were charged with unlawful abortion
  • Abortion laws are unclear and complex and vary from State to State. In Victoria, an abortion is not "unlawful" if a doctor believes that the abortion is necessary to preserve the woman's life or her physical or mental health
  • Committees have been established in hospitals and elsewhere to consider abortion, which further intrudes into the doctor-patient relationship

Laws in four jurisdictions are still based on an 1861 English law - the Offences against the Person Act. Laws place obstacles in the way of women seeking abortion, making doctors the gatekeepers. "This exposes Australian women and their doctors to unacceptable legal risks and doctors to unacceptable professional risks", the authors say.

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