Tasmania's intimidating abortion bill

Michael Cook
30 April 2013
Reproduced with Permission

It's official. The Australian state of Tasmania is a basket case. According to a recent report from CommSec about state economies, it runs last in economic growth, retail spending, equipment investment, construction work, population growth, housing finance and dwelling commencements. The brightest light shines over the unemployment figures -- where it placed second last.

Tasmania stands on the edge of an economic precipice.

But there is one area in which the Labor-Green government under Premier Lara Giddings gets a gold star - suppressing dissent. Politicians who were once arrested for protesting against logging Tasmania's pristine wilderness are backing arrests for protesting against abortion.

Earlier this month Tasmania's lower house passed the Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill. This bill is said to remove abortion from the criminal code. But it actually retains key provisions criminalizing certain abortions. It allows terminations up to the 16th week of pregnancy with no requirement for women to prove any risk of injury to their physical or mental health. After 16 weeks, two doctors have to certify that continuation of the pregnancy would result in a greater risk to the woman's health than termination due to "current and future physical, psychological, economic and social circumstances".

So, basically any circumstances at all, including abortion for sex selection.

Legislation enabling abortion is common enough. But the Tasmanian law could be the first in the world to penalise doctors, counsellors and protesters with draconian fines and even jail sentences if they oppose abortion. Health minister Michelle O'Byrne says that the bill has been modelled on 2008 legislation in the nearby state of Victoria. But she also seems to have been inspired by the peculiar interpretation of democracy invoked by Vladimir Putin when the Russian government jailed the punk rock group Pussy Riot.

Here is what the bill proposes.

A doctor with a conscientious objection to abortion must refer a woman to another doctor. No penalty is specified, but non-compliance might lead to deregistration. A counsellor who refuses to refer a woman to an abortion clinic could be fined A$32,500. A protester who exhibits a placard or utters negative words about abortion within 150 metres of a clinic could be fined $65,000 and jailed for one year. (The two busiest churches in Hobart are located within 150 metres.)

The bill is worded so loosely that opponents of abortion are bound to feel intimidated.

Doctors might not go to jail for refusing to pass the buck to a more compliant colleague, but unemployment is a powerful threat. In Victoria, for instance, a general practitioner may be in hot water for refusing to refer a couple who wanted to abort their 19-week-old child because it was a girl.

And then, who is a "counsellor"? The bill defines her as "a person who holds himself or herself out as a provider of a counselling service, or conducts himself or herself in a manner consistent with a provider of a counselling service, whether or not that service or conduct is engaged in, or provided, for fee or reward".

This vague words could include your grandmother. And in fact, many pro-life counsellors in Tasmania are grandmothers who volunteer a couple of hours a week. They are being threatened with fines which could wipe out their savings. Ministers, priests and teachers who speak out against abortion could easily become victims of entrapment.

Special legislation for criminalising protests outside abortion clinics is completely unnecessary. No special legislation when former Senator Bob Brown was arrested in 1982 for protesting against the damming of the Franklin River nor when the leader of the Tasmanian Greens, Nick McKim, was arrested during the Farmhouse Creek Blockade in 1987.

But even if nobody is fined or jailed, the bill will silence anyone who is not game to be a martyr. Schools, church agencies and ministers and priests will think twice before questioning abortion.

And that, no doubt, is exactly what Labor and the Greens intend.

What can justify such restrictions on free speech? Tasmania has no history of violent or abusive protests against abortion. "Protests and harassment have not been a feature in Tasmania to the best of our knowledge," says AMA Tasmania, the peak body for doctors. "This seems to be a response to a non-existent problem."

The health minister told Parliament that she wants to ban silent and peaceful protests because they are "an expression of disapproval". What sort of precedent does this set? Will future governments in Tasmania ban silent and peaceful protests outside logging coups? At least Putin could cite Pussy Riot's noisy and disruptive tactics; O'Byrne wants criminal penalties for silent disapproval.

Doctors regard the bill as an infringement of their civil liberties. AMA Tasmania supports the legalization of abortion but strongly opposes the imposition of an obligation to refer. "Members of Parliament would have a conscience vote on the proposed legislation," it comments, but the draft bill "denies similar consideration to medical practitioners."

The health minister describes her Putin-esque bill as an "appropriate balance". But a quick comparison with an abortion bill currently before the New York legislature shows how oppressive it really is. In many ways, the New York legislation is even more radical because it declares that abortion is a "fundamental right". New York has been described as the "abortion capital of America" and opponents of abortion there are vocal and energetic. Nonetheless, its bill contains no restrictions on free speech.

With the local economy in a shambles, nearly everyone expects Labor and the Greens to lose next year's election. But before her government jumps off the electoral cliff, Michelle O'Byrne has written an adolescent suicide note saying "FU, pro-lifers". Why doesn't her government grow up and get its hands dirty creating jobs instead of squelching ideological opponents? That's what they were elected for, isn't it?