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Cheat sheet: Here's what you need to know about the proposed changes to abortion laws.

Anti-abortion protesters.

This week, independent Victorian MP, Geoff Shaw announced that he would bring forward a private members Bill to place new limitations on abortion laws in Victoria.  Mr Shaw told the Herald Sun, “here in Australia we can’t kill snake eggs but we are quite happy to kill an egg in the tummy and it should be the safest place for a baby to be.”

Confused? That’s reasonable. Here’s what it’s all about (well, not the egg bit. I can’t explain that.)

What’s this all about?

Geoff Shaw MP says that he is going to introduce a private members Bill into the Victorian Parliament that will seek to change Victorian abortion laws in six ways.

There is currently a provision in the Victorian Abortion Law Reform Act (section 8) that requires doctors who have a conscientious objection to abortion to refer patients seeking abortion to another specialist who will perform the procedure. Mr Shaw is proposing to scrap this requirement.

Mr Shaw is also apparently seeking to outlaw abortion for gender selection, and is planning to include provisions requiring the notification of custodial parents (of under 18s seeking abortion), compulsory counselling, resuscitation for aborted foetuses and pain relief for foetuses during all procedures.

Shaw told The 7:30 Report that the Victoria’s abortion laws are “some of the worst…in the world” – and he’s about to go on a tax-payer subsidised study tour of the United States to test this claim.

Who is Geoff Shaw MP?   

Geoff Shaw MP.

Geoff Shaw is the Member of Parliament for Frankston in Victoria. He has been a controversial figure, having quit the Liberal Party after allegations that he misused his Parliamentary car and fuel card by letting someone from his hardware factory use it (a claim he denied and the money was repaid). He famously made a masturbating gesture in Parliament (denied, but caught on camera), sent a homophobic email to one of his constituents (likening the desire of a gay man to love another to a child molester wanting to molest a child) and was involved in a physical altercation with an elderly protestor outside Parliament House last year.

Shaw is a devout Christian and has been clear that his religion shapes his role as an MP and his views on social policy, telling 7:30, “I’m a Christian first.”

OK, he sounds like a unique character, but let’s play the ball, not the man. Why is this private members Bill important?

Private members Bills (legislation introduced by individual members, rather than by the Government) are not uncommon and tend not to be a big deal, but this one is important because there is a one seat majority in the Victorian Parliament – and that seat is held by Geoff Shaw.

Geoff Shaw MP holds the balance of power in the lower house of the Victorian Parliament, which means that the current Victorian government and the Premier, Denis Napthine, need Mr Shaw’s support in order to stay in power.

Abortion was illegal in Victoria until 2008 when it was decriminalised by the Brumby Government after a very long, dramatic and divisive debate. Premier Denis Napthine (and a few members of his Cabinet) actually voted to keep abortion a crime back then – so you can understand why women’s groups and other community members are nervous that, with Geoff Shaw’s influence in the Parliament, the Premier may be tempted to reopen the issue for debate (although he has said he isn’t going to – see below).

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The fear is that gains secured for women’s reproductive rights in 2008 may be lost as a result.

What is going to happen from here?

Last December, Premier Napthine reassured voters that he wasn’t interested in changing the abortion laws in Victoria, saying in a clip on YouTube that, “as Premier, neither I, nor my government, have any intention of introducing legislation that would reduce a woman’s right to choose”[7].

That undertaking aside, it was the Premier who gave Mr Shaw the go-ahead to prepare his private members Bill[8] and the Liberal Party in Victoria have changed their party platform to support the repealing of the provision that requires doctors who conscientiously object to abortion to refer a patient on to another practitioner. The Premier, it seems, is in an awkward spot.

The best news is that this is an election year in Victoria and no savvy sitting member of any political persuasion (apart from a few of Shaw’s close supporters) will want this issue on the agenda in the lead up to a November election. Hopefully, timing and political expediency will see this Bill hosed before it gets much further.

Too true.

This whole issue is a timely reminder of how quickly and easily women’s rights can be put at risk – in this case, due to a quirk in Parliamentary numbers that has delivered disproportionate power to a fringe MP who might otherwise not have any influence at all. Eternal vigilance, comrades – this is why we still need feminism, every day.

Does Victoria have the worst abortion laws in the world?

No. Australia’s abortion rate is actually low by international standards. Abortion is one of the safest and most highly regulated medical procedures performed in this country.

The vast majority of abortions here take place before 12 weeks gestation and almost all before 24 weeks. It is very rare that any take place after that time and there are significant legislated safeguards in place for terminations which are required in these unique later cases, including (in Victoria) the oversight of two medical practitioners. Given the timeframes, thoroughness and level of medical care involved, Mr Shaw’s talk of pain relief for foetuses and resuscitating aborted foetuses is immaterial to the circumstances and simple scaremongering, designed to distress and demonise women seeking abortions and the doctors who perform them legally, responsibly and safely.

While Shaw claims he is “sticking up for women”, safe, legal, affordable abortion is essential for women’s health, wellbeing and equality. Those who would seek to drive it back into backyards are no friend to women.

Why does Geoff Shaw think there are eggs in my tummy?

I would make a joke about the absurdity of “killing an egg in the tummy” but I wouldn’t want to be accused of ovary acting (heh!).

All snarks aside, if you don’t have a strong sense of how reproduction works and you aren’t comfortable using the words embryo or uterus (or foetus and womb or any relevant word, really), it’s quite clear that you shouldn’t be anywhere near policy or legislation that regulates medical care for the human body.

What do you think of the proposed changes to Victoria’s abortion laws?