Decriminalisation not deregulation for SA abortion laws

Scales of Justice

The independent South Australian Law Reform Institute (SALRI) based at the University of Adelaide has recommended major changes to South Australian abortion laws in its report to the Attorney General published today.

“SALRI’s report recommends that abortion is decriminalised by making it a regulated medical procedure under health law as opposed to a criminal law issue,” says the Director of the SA Law Reform Institute, the University of Adelaide's Professor John Williams.

“Abortion should be treated as a health issue rather than as a criminal law matter, and a woman’s autonomy and best health care should be respected and promoted.”

SALRI was asked by the South Australian Attorney-General, the Hon Vickie Chapman MP, to examine the current South Australian law and practice, modernise the law and bring it into line with current clinical practice, adopt best practice reforms and improve the efficiency of health service provision and access.

“Abortion should be treated as a health issue rather than as a criminal law matter, and a woman’s autonomy and best health care should be respected and promoted.”Professor John Williams

“The current law dates to 1969 and is outdated in various respects. The legal framework and criminal law focus has an adverse effect on both patients and health staff, and creates additional barriers to accessing relevant services for women in rural, regional, remote and Aboriginal communities,” says Professor Williams.

“We have recommended two alternative models in our report, both of which recognise that women should be free to make their own informed decision as to whether or not they seek an abortion.

“The first model is that an abortion is lawful at all gestational stages with the woman’s consent and if it is performed by an appropriate health practitioner, which mirrors the law in ACT.

“This places decision-making responsibility with the woman and service availability with the medical or health professional.

“The alternative model, which reflects current clinical practice, is that if a woman requests an abortion after 24 weeks gestation the first medical practitioner is required to consult with at least one other medical practitioner - whilst still recognising the autonomy of the woman - and for both practitioners to agree that an abortion is medically appropriate.

“The second approach recognises that terminations at a later stage often involve complications, distress, complexities and higher risks to a pregnant woman.”

SALRI’s report has a total of 66 recommendations to current law and practice. Precluding abortion was not within SALRI’s terms of reference. Other recommendations focussed on establishing safe access zones around places where services are available, the roles of conscientious objection and referral for health practitioners, removing criminal liability for the woman involved and health practitioners and a new offence for abortion services provided by unqualified parties.

“The current outdated law relating to abortion in South Australia is at odds with the law elsewhere in Australia and no longer reflects contemporary clinical practice or medical advances,” says Professor Williams.

“This was a challenging reference. Abortion raises legal, health, ethical, policy and practical questions which are often answered by recourse to deep personal beliefs.”

The University of Adelaide's Dr David Plater is Deputy Director of SALRI.

“SALRI’s work on this sensitive issue benefitted from wide-ranging consultation with the South Australian community and interested parties in Adelaide and regional, rural and remote South Australia,” says Dr Plater.

“Interested parties took the time to contribute to the complex, ethical and medical issues, in a constructive and cooperative way. Their views were carefully considered.

“Medical and health practitioners were consulted as well as professional bodies, legal experts and academics, faith groups, the disability sector, domestic violence services, Aboriginal health workers, and NGOs.

“People who were both supportive of and opposed to the decriminalisation of abortion were consulted.

“SALRI received a total of 340 submissions and 2885 responses to its online survey. We would like to thank all parties who took the time to contribute to this important reference.”

Following today’s release of SALRI’s report by the Attorney-General, it will be for the South Australian Government and Parliament to consider the recommendations, and to decide whether or not to accept them.

Tagged in abortion, salri, law