About Time: Decriminalising Abortion is Back on the Agenda

As the NSW state election approaches on March 23, and the federal election approaches in May, abortion law reform is finally on the political agenda. Most significantly, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition Tanya Plibersek announced the ALP’s National Sexual and Reproductive Health Strategy. Part of this Strategy will include tying federal health funding of public hospitals to their provision of abortion services. The effect of this will be to place significant pressure on states like NSW, where abortion is currently illegal, to provide abortion services in public hospitals. Labor has said it intends to “work closely with the states” to progress decriminalising abortion across Australia.

Queensland decriminalised abortion in October 2018. NSW is currently the only state or territory in Australia where abortion is a criminal offence. There are restrictions on when abortion is legal in other states and territories, including varying conditions on gaining the approval of doctors.

Since 1971, the courts in NSW have narrowly confined when abortions are unlawful. Courts are to take into consideration if there is serious danger to the woman’s physical or mental health. They must also consider the woman’s psychological state if there is birth of the child, and consider her “economic and social circumstances”. Whilst this has expanded when abortions are lawful, they are still treated as a criminal offence. In August 2017, the Blacktown Local Court convicted and sentenced a woman to a three-year good behaviour bond for procuring drugs on the internet to terminate her pregnancy.

Last year safe access zones around abortion clinics were passed into law. This was an important step, but abortion itself still needs to be decriminalised. Since December last year, a range of NGOs, such as domestic violence services, women’s community groups, and more have lobbied politicians to decriminalise abortion. NSW Council for Civil Liberties supported the push. It is now time for decriminalisation of abortion in NSW. We continue to urge candidates for the NSW election to commit to upholding the rights of women over their own bodily autonomy and decriminalise abortion.


Michael Brull

Policy Lawyer

NSW Council for Civil Liberties