The recent debate in Alabama, USA in relation to abortion prohibitions with no exception for rape or incest, has brought New South Wales’ abortion laws into the spotlight.
New South Wales remains the only state or territory in Australia, to treat abortion as a criminal offence subject to exceptions. These exceptions are found in the decision of R v Wald  which finds abortion to be lawful if a doctor believes that a woman’s physical or mental health would be in danger. While this would consider the social, economic and medical factors involved in the case, women are still not entitled to abortion on request.
Reasons for decriminalising abortion
A study conducted in collaboration with The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Guttmacher Institute found that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and where it is illegal, showing that criminalising abortion only contributes to the rise of unsafe abortions rather than a decline in the actual abortion rate. The decriminalisation of abortion is thus in the interest of safe healthcare. The ‘WHO’ estimates that 22 million unsafe abortions occur each year worldwide. As these are not conducted by a trained medical professional, they often have fatal consequences. The WHO has found that unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of maternal deaths globally and liable for another 5 million preventable disabilities.
Moreover, from a social and ethical perspective, compelling a woman to carry a child until delivery, infringes upon her bodily autonomy and thus, her human rights. From being unable to afford to carry or deliver a child, to being mentally unprepared to raise one, there are many reasons why women may not want to have a pregnancy to term. While some may suggest adoption as a viable alternative, in Australia, only 209 children out of the estimated 40, 000 children put up for adoption are adopted each year.
Hence, an increasing number of states and countries have been decriminalising or legalising abortion with more than 30 countries doing so in the past 60 years according to Amnesty International. With Queensland decriminalising abortion as of 2018, NSW remains the last state criminalising abortion.
The Position of the NSW Government
Despite NSW’s Premier, Gladys Berejiklian’s support for a women’s right to choose, she has clarified that she would need to see what the legislation looks like first. She has also stated that the MPs would be provided with a conscience vote on the decriminalisation of abortion if a bill comes before the Parliament.
This issue combines both legal and ethical concerns, and so it will be interesting to see the results of a conscience vote, especially considering the risks inherent in unsafe abortions and the other approaches available to reducing abortion rates, such as accessible contraception and education programs.