Current Issue #487

South Australia’s legacy of reproductive rights reform risks being derailed in parliament

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We celebrate South Australia’s history of progressive reform, but half a century after the state legalised abortion our current parliament is failing to protect the right to safe access.

Those of us who have not recently needed to terminate a pregnancy might be surprised to learn that South Australians trying to access this specific form of health care are often confronted by protestors camped outside the clinics. Such scenes add an unfair layer of distress and pressure to what is already a difficult personal decision.

A co-sponsored Bill from Labor MP Nat Cook and Greens MLC Tammy Franks is trying to change that, and on Wednesday 23 September the House of Assembly will debate the Bill – and not for the first time.

The Bill in question seeks to set a 150-metre zone outside the perimeter of any prescribed hospitals within which the protest of abortion in unlawful. Modest in its aims, it seeks “to ensure the safety, well-being, privacy and dignity of people accessing abortion services, as well as health professionals and other people providing abortion services.”

First introduced by Franks in December 2018, this has been a long time coming; it gained the support of the South Australian Law Reform Institute in a report released in October last year, before a subsequent Bill was again put forward by Franks passed the Upper House in November. Cook then took it to the Lower House – where it has been sitting since late 2019.

This is partly because, unlike the Upper House, the Lower House of restricts the time afforded to private members business in the sitting schedule – there has been less than five allotted hours to discuss it in almost a year. And partly because members opposing the Bill have successfully dominated that time with a silent prayer amendment; exactly what it sounds like, the amendment seeks to allow protestors inside the zone to pray silently.  

Given the purpose of the Bill is to ensure uninhibited  – unintimidated – access to health care, there is significant opposition to this amendment. Addressing Parliament in July, Cook was quick to point out that there are plenty of places to pray: “on my count, there are eight Christian churches within a 750-metre radius of this clinic, so if the question is about somewhere to pray I am sure that one of those churches would gladly open their doors in the free and democratic exercise of faith in this country.”

This is a conscience vote, and many members seek to take their constituents wishes into account on matters such as these. For better or worse, they can only account for the opinions expressed to their offices and issues like this tend to fly under the radar of the average constituent because, thankfully, it is not something you are confronted by the need for on a regular basis. This means small but invested parties, such as 40 Days for Life who aim to maintain a ‘constant vigil’ outside clinics, can end up having an unrepresentative sway.

Of course we cannot be certain of public opinion specifically about silent prayer, but given 92 per cent of South Australians agree people seeking abortion care should be protected from harassment and 95 per cent of Australians support women’s access to abortion care (noting not everybody who needs an abortion is a woman) – we can certainly make an educated guess.

South Australians are rightly proud of our historic record on matters of equity. We are proud of the work of Catherine Helen Spence and Mary Lee that meant South Australian women were the first in the country allowed to vote. Of Gladys Elphick, president of the Council of Aboriginal Women of South Australia; and of Augusta Zadow, founding member of the Working Women’s Trade Union.

But this pride can lead to complacency. None of those women worked alone, and each notable success is borne of tireless and dry work eking out safer spaces, metre by one hundred and fifty metres. The work is unending, and this amendment is part of a legacy. A seemingly simple request: that people accessing abortions, and the loved ones who accompany them, not be subject to the harassment of strangers.

The right to freedom of religious expression is paramount but it is disingenuous to wield it in this way. Addressing Parliament Cook, recalled her mother’s words: “God will hear you everywhere”.

Gemma Beale

Gemma Beale

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Gemma Beale is a PhD candidate at the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute, Flinders University exploring the relationship between precarious employment and industry closure.

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