On 16th February Natasha Fyles made the Second Reading speech to parliament on Termination of Pregnancy Law Reform Bill 2017. The bill proposes to create a new Act to replace Section 11 of the Medical Services Act, which will be repealed, and bring Northern Territory termination of pregnancy legislation into the 21st century.
The Termination of Pregnancy Law Reform Bill, if passed, will repeal and replace current legislation in section 11 of the Medical Services Act dealing with the same subject matter. Consequential amendments will also be made to the Criminal Code Act to decriminalise terminations of pregnancies performed by health practitioners with relevant qualifications.
The Bill is intended to increase access by women to safe terminations of pregnancy in either of out-of-hospital or within hospital settings, with health practitioners applying evidence-based practice within a framework of professional standards and guidelines relevant to assessment and treatment. Health practitioners will be able to maintain a conscientious objection to providing termination of pregnancy services but will be required to refer a woman to another practitioner to access the services sought. The Bill includes the concept of safe access zones to provide protected access to health facilities where termination of pregnancy services are provided.
In an Explanatory Statement issued by the minister:
Part 1 of the Bill outlines preliminary matters. Comprehensive definitions are provided for important terms that are used throughout the Bill. The Bill defines the qualifications and credentials of the suitably qualified medical practitioner who may perform a termination of pregnancy, health practitioners who may assist the termination and the scope of professional standards and guidelines to which the medical practitioner must have regard in assessing the woman.
Part 2 of the Bill outlines the roles of health practitioners and matters relating to termination of pregnancy at not more than 14 weeks, termination of pregnancy at not more than 23 weeks, termination of pregnancy where life is at risk, and the requirements placed on health practitioners who are conscientious objectors.
Part 3 of the Bill creates offences of engagement in prohibited conduct and publication of recording in a safe access zone, defined as an area including the premises where terminations are performed and extending 150 metres from the boundary of the premises. The Part defines the prohibited behaviours and sets out the penalties and defences.
Part 4 of the Bill provides for reporting of information to the Chief Health Officer as prescribed by regulations.
Part 5 of the Bill contains the power of the Administrator to make regulations about such matters as offences, penalties, collection of information or data, or the setting of standards or requirements.
Part 6 of the Bill notes consequential and related amendments to other legislation including the Criminal Code Act and the Medical Services Act.
The Northern Territory Parliament passed a law decriminalising abortion and legalising the medical termination of pregnancy on 21 March 2017. Changes under the new law were legalisation of drugs for abortion for up to nine weeks gestation, medical and surgical terminations could be performed outside of hospital, safe access zones would be established around hospitals and clinics and abortion would be decriminalised.
This bill took four and a half years of public advocacy to be passed and there were several reasons for its success in 2017. The first was overwhelming public support for equity in health care and a strong community campaign.
The second reason was that 50% of the members of the 13th Legislative Assembly were women. No state or federal parliament in Australia at this time has this level of female representation. Women are better placed to understand women’s health needs and women in the NT were lacking this representation until gender parity in the lower house of parliament in 2016.
The Bill is still awaiting assent - that is, it has been passed by Parliament but not yet assented to by John Hardy, the Administrator of the Northern Territory. The granting of assent is a formal process that will not involve any further amendments to the Bill, but the timing is unpredictable. Until assent is given, the new Bill does not come into effect and the old section 11 of the Medical Services Act is still law.