Laws surrounding abortion vary widely between different states and territories. Abortion was decriminalised in the ACT in 2002 and the ACT now has the most liberal abortion laws in the country. Women can obtain an abortion ‘on demand’ at any point in their pregnancy. The ACT has also enacted provisions making it a criminal offence to interfere with a person accessing an abortion clinic or to protest in the vicinity of a clinic during its hours of operation.
The ACT is the only Australian jurisdiction where there is no gestational limit on accessing abortion services.
What is abortion?
Abortion is defined under Section 80 of the Health Act 1993 as causing a woman’s miscarriage by administering a drug, using an instrument or by any other means.
An abortion must be carried out by a doctor in an approved medical facility.
It is an offence carrying a penalty of imprisonment for five years for a person who is not a doctor to perform an abortion.
It is an offence carrying a penalty of 50 penalty units or imprisonment for six months to perform an abortion outside of a medical facility.
No one is obliged to carry out or assist in an abortion in the ACT. A person may refuse to assist in carrying out an abortion. However, unlike in other jurisdictions, in the ACT there is currently no requirement that a medical practitioner who has a conscientious objection to performing an abortion inform the woman seeking the termination of this or refer her to another practitioner who does not have such an objection.
Protest Free Zones
Like several other jurisdictions, the ACT has enacted provisions making it an offence to engage in prohibited behaviour within the area 50 meters around a medical facility that performs abortions.
Prohibited behaviour includes:
- Harassing, hindering, intimidating, interfering with, threatening or obstructing a person entering the facility or having or providing an abortion in the facility;
- An act that can be heard or seen by anyone within the hours the facility is operating and intended to stop the person from entering the facility or having or providing an abortion in the facility;
- A protest in relation to the provision of abortions in the facility.
Engaging in such prohibited behaviour attracts a fine of up to 25 penalty units.
It is also an offence, punishable by a fine of up to 50 penalty units, to publish visual data of a person entering or leaving or trying to enter or leave an approved medical facility with the intention of stopping a person from having or providing an abortion where the person did not consent to the publication.
Right to life
The ACT is one of only three Australian jurisdictions that have enacted human rights legislation. This takes the form of the Human Rights Act 2004.
Section 9 of the Human Rights Act provides that a person has the right to life and that no one may be arbitrarily deprived of life. The section specifies that the right to life applies to a person from the time of birth.
In September 2018, the Greens introduced legislation to the ACT parliament seeking to further liberalise the abortion laws in the ACT. The bill sought to:
- Allow nurses to supply and administer medication for medical terminations;
- Remove the requirement that abortions must be performed in an approved medical facility;
- Require medical practitioners who have a conscientious objection to performing an abortion to inform the person requesting the termination of this.
The Greens argue that ACT laws have failed to keep pace with advances in how abortions are performed and that the requirement for all terminations to be performed by doctors in an approved facility is no longer necessary.
The Australian Medical Association has expressed its support for most of the bill.
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