THE US Supreme Court is very likely to overturn the landmark Roe v Wade pro-choice decision which has guided women’s reproductive rights since 22 January 1973. But what will that mean for Australians seeking an abortion?

The answer is complex and contested, but Australians would be remiss to be too complacent or to underestimate the impact of such a decision, say experts.

“This is a very real concern,” said Dr Tania Penovic, a Senior Lecturer research program group leader in gender and sexuality for the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University.

“Our situation  is very different from the US but we must not be numbed into complacency.

“Although abortion has been largely decriminalised in Australia, the politicisation of abortion in the US has not left Australia untouched.

“We see this process in the US where the politicisation of abortion by the Christian right started in the 1970s, and it’s reaching a peak now. And who pays the price? Pregnant people and the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in the community, those who experience intersectional discrimination and disadvantage.”

Dr Penovic cited several instances of US anti-choice influence in Australia, including a speaking tour visit by Monsignor Philip Reilly, founder of the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants group; in 2015, Right to Life Australia invited anti-abortion activist Troy Newman of Operation Rescue for a national lecture tour; US anti-abortion activists lobbied South Australian MPs in person when that state’s decriminalisation bill was going through parliament recently.

The overturning of Roe v Wade will embolden Australian anti-choice activists, says Dr Penovic.

“Anti-abortionists take the view that this is just the start and will seek to stigmatise abortion further and make it seem like the most heinous act imaginable,” she told InSight+.

“The influence of those activists is palpable. We are not overreacting. If anything, we are a little bit too comfortable. Reproductive rights are hard fought in Australia, and we need to ensure that they are protected.”

Professor Danielle Mazza, the Director of SPHERE, the National Health and Medical Research Council Centre of Research Excellence in women’s sexual and reproductive health in primary care, told InSight+ the current state of the SCOTUS ruling was “confronting”.

“People have forgotten what happens when abortion is criminalised,” she said.

“Abortions don’t stop happening just because they are illegal. They just become backyard, unsafe abortions with increased morbidity and mortality.

“The older generations of doctors can remember wards full of women with septic abortions. Women will go to any lengths to get an abortion if they need one, regardless of legality.”

Professor Mazza said the overturning of Roe v Wade and any knock-on effect in Australia would exacerbate the differential in access to abortion that already exists.

“The rich with networks will still be able to find what they need, and the poor won’t – they are the ones who will suffer.”

Professor Mazza was also concerned about the effect upon the reproductive health care workforce if abortion access was again limited in Australia.

“[The possibility of Roe v Wade being overturned] is very threatening to health care providers,” she said.

“We have already had a death in Australia of a security guard at an abortion clinic in Melbourne. These developments are very worrying and put at risk essential women’s health care services.”

Professor Caroline de Costa, from the Cairns Institute at James Cook University, was more optimistic about the resilience of Australian reproductive rights legislation.

“I do not see that any attempt at winding back the legislation or impeding the growing ease of accessibility to abortion care services is likely to be successful,” she wrote in an email to InSight+.

“Several recent studies of community opinion show that a majority of Australians support a woman’s right to choose an abortion; other recent studies also show that obstetricians and gynaecologists, midwives and medical students also support the right of women to safe legal abortion.”

Professor de Costa said a quote from Justice Samuel Alito in the leaked draft SCOTUS ruling was telling about the difference between the situation here and the one in the US.

“Interestingly, Alito is said to have written: ‘it is time to heed the [US] Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives’,” she wrote.

“In Australia our [national] constitution allows health issues to be legislated by state parliaments so we have actually done exactly that, and in every case, safe, accessible abortion, accessed with dignity and privacy has become the right of women thanks to our elected representatives.

“It’s worth noting also that all Australian jurisdictions now have legislation and/or regulations restricting protestors from harassing or interfering with women and their support people, and staff, who are entering premises where abortion services are provided.

“I believe the vast majority of Australians support these laws and are appalled by the kinds of scenes we have seen, and will no doubt continue to see, from the US.”

All three experts agreed vigilance was key to the continued resilience of Australian abortion laws.

“There may be blustering, lying, and false claims from some politicians (mostly but not always male) but I don’t think it will go far,” wrote Professor de Costa.

“That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to be vigilant in exposing false information and opposing any attempts anywhere in Australia to take away women’s basic rights in accessing reproductive healthcare.”

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10 thoughts on “What the overturn of Roe v Wade will mean for Australians

  1. Anonymous says:

    Paul Triggs “What is the abortion lobby afraid of?”

    Like most decent Americans, they’re afraid that American democracy is crumbling to an extent that elections are not a legitimate means through which to ensure good decision-making.

    You can so easily picture Trump and his anti-abortionists storming the State Capitol of every pro-abortion state, this time without much security to stop them.

  2. Margaret Crawford says:

    Roe v Wade was a specific decision in specific circumstances. The Supreme Court will not be ‘overturning’ the ‘precident’’ if they make a determination which limits its applicability. They will be restoring the law in the face of judicial activism which has stretched the determination past all logical boundaries.

  3. Anonymous says:

    A woman’s right to control her own body is her absolute right. A fetus is not a baby and it’s not a separate being, it’s a part of a woman’s body. There is no separate existence at this point – there is no “human being” having it’s separate rights infringed. Abortion is up to the woman to decide – and women will always make decisions regardless of whether appropriate health care is available to them or not. If you personally don’t believe in abortion then please feel free to not have one. As for women let them have full human rights, keep your so called “moral” opinions to yourselves.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “Anti-abortionists take the view that this is just the start and will seek to stigmatise abortion further and make it seem like the most heinous act imaginable,”…
    Well yes, but those opposed to abortion often struggle with the concept that transit down the birth canal transforms what prior was an abortion into after being infanticide.

  5. Paul Triggs says:

    A little shrill and tendentious, I would submit. Roe v Wade has never been able to shrug controversy, and is still rightly criticized as bad lawmaking. It is based on a court deciding a class of people (unborn) are not human. 1973 was closer to WW2 than we are now, and most of the years in between were spent in the cold war, both periods that led people in the West to recoil from this line of thinking.
    Roe should be overturned, and the decision should be with the electorate, and not the courts pretending the constitution enshrines abortion.
    Take it to the ballots, run on this platform, get elected and change the law, change the constitution. What is the abortion lobby afraid of?

  6. DrPhil says:

    Another example of the dichotomy between evidence based medicine and evidence based living. People are allowed to believe what ever they want, regardless of the presence or absence of rational evidence. Faith is belief without evidence, that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. To say that we can’t be “moral” without the shackles of religion is an insult to rational thinkers everywhere. It’s so patronising. Will the psychiatrists ever acknowledge this socially acceptable but schizoid existence?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Being so close to the election, it is a good time for the AMA to ask both major parties what their position is on this issue and their answer show then be made known to the public.

  8. Ian Cormack says:

    Re abortion: Impression (?based on fake news?) In Oz there is less fervour associated with political parties than in US. Question: When a lady is burdened with an unwanted pregnancy, with the reasons and the possible courses of action whirring through her mind along with costs and benefits, is her political affiliation one of those things? and if so, is she thinking: “How can I circumvent this?” or “How can I best comply?”
    If no termination, then adoption can be considered. Should she think: “Is the adopter in my party?”
    Some things should be kept out of politics.

  9. Ian Cormack says:

    I voted neutral for the Com Snr Card, as I don’t know the finance / wealth level that would be affected. Whatever the answer, nothing is fair, so some will get help who don’t need it and some who deserve help will still miss out. Meanwhile we live on a nice block and when our rate bill bites deeply I think sometimes of contemporaries with rates subsidised. I don’t want to swap.

  10. Anonymous says:

    There is much hyper-ventilating about any SCOTUS reversal of Roe vs Wade, which is more about the symbolism of the change.
    Mostly, the reversal is about returning the power to make laws to the democratically-elected legislature, which is arguably where it should be.
    It will not remove access to abortion in the US, but may provide challenges to the financially less well-off if they have to cross state-lines to access the care they desire.
    Given state legislatures in Australia have all de-criminalised abortion, this discussion locally seems mere rhetoric. Australia has done via its legislatures exactly what the US should have done 50 years ago.

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