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Abortion in the Northern Territory

The laws surrounding abortion in the Northern Territory were reformed in 2017. The Termination of Pregnancy Law Reform Act 2017 decriminalises abortion when performed by a qualified person for women who are less than 23 weeks pregnant.  However, the act does not allow for ‘abortion on demand’ but only for abortion when it is necessary or appropriate in the opinion of a medical practitioner.

The act also establishes ‘safe access zones’ around abortion clinics and criminal offences apply to those who harass or hinder someone accessing an abortion clinic.

What is an abortion?

A termination includes a surgical procedure intended to induce an abortion, the administration of a drug with the intent of inducing an abortion, or any other act done with the intent of inducing an abortion.

Termination up to 14 weeks

Section 7 of the Termination of Pregnancy Law Reform Act 2017 provides that a doctor can perform an abortion on a woman who is not more than 14 weeks pregnant if he or she considers the termination appropriate in the circumstances, having regard to the relevant medical circumstances and the woman’s current and future social and psychological circumstances as well as professional standards and guidelines.

Termination up to 23 weeks

Section 9 of the act provides that a doctor may perform a termination on a woman who is more than 14 weeks pregnant but not more than 23 weeks pregnant if the doctor has consulted with another suitably qualified medical practitioner who has assessed the woman and both doctors consider the termination is appropriate in all the circumstances.

Termination where life is at risk

Section 10 of the act provides that a doctor may perform an abortion on a woman in an emergency if the doctor considers it is necessary to preserve the woman’s life.

Conscientious objection

If a woman requests advice about abortion or the provision of an abortion from a medical practitioner who has a conscientious objection to terminations, the doctor must refer the woman to another doctor who does not have a conscientious objection.

Criminal offences

The act sets out a number of criminal offences relating to abortion in the Northern Territory.

Termination by unqualified person

It remains a criminal offence for an unqualified person to perform an abortion in the Northern Territory. If an unqualified person administers a drug to a woman or uses an instrument on a woman with the intention of causing the termination of the women’s pregnancy, the unqualified person faces a maximum penalty of imprisonment for seven years. However, this provision does not apply to a woman who performs a termination on herself.

Procurement or supply by unqualified person

It is a criminal offence for a person to intentionally procure or supply a drug, instrument or other thing to a woman for use to bring about the termination of the woman’s pregnancy, if the person is not a qualified person. This offence attracts a maximum penalty of imprisonment for seven years.

Prohibited conduct in a safe access zone

The act establishes safe access zones covering the area within premises used for performing termination and extending 150 metres of the boundary of such premises.

It is an offence under section 14 of the act to engage in prohibited conduct within a safe access zone. Prohibited conduct includes harassing, intimidating, hindering, interfering with, threatening or obstructing a person entering or leaving an abortion clinic or performing or receiving a termination. This offence carries a maximum penalty of a fine or 100 penalty units or imprisonment for 12 months.

Publication of recording in a safe access zone

It is an offence under section 15 of the act to intentionally or recklessly publish a recording of another person who is in a safe access zone that was made without the person’s consent and shows the other person entering or leaving or attempting to enter or leave premises used for performing abortions. This offence carries a maximum penalty of a fine or 100 penalty units or imprisonment for 12 months.

Responses to the changes

The amendments to the laws surrounding abortion in the Northern Territory went into effect in July 2017. They were hailed as liberalising access to abortion in the Northern Territory and bringing its laws into line with other jurisdictions. Supporters of the changes said they were important in signalling to the community that abortion is no different from other medical procedures. The establishment of safe access zones was widely seen as important to protect women seeking to access abortion service from intentional harassment.

Prior to the changes, surgical abortions were only available in three NT hospitals and NT women had no access to medical abortion. Lawyers and women’s rights activists say the NT’s laws require further reform, placing the decision to end a pregnancy with women rather than with their doctors. There have also been calls for abortions to be allowed for women who are more than 24 weeks pregnant in some circumstances.

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