Amnesty International believes that the acquittal today of a young couple in Cairns charged with procuring an abortion is a clear sign that it is time to decriminalise abortion across Australia in line with the country’s international human rights commitments.

The case highlights the fact that abortion remains in the Criminal Code in all Australian states and territories, with the exception of Victoria and the ACT.

Amnesty International urges all remaining states and territories to decriminalise abortion and supports calls for abortion to be regulated instead under health legislation.

Inconsistencies between abortion law and corresponding criminal sanctions in the states and territories were noted in July 2010 at the Australian Government’s appearance before the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

The UN Committee called for Australia to implement its international obligations to protect women’s rights consistently across all states and territories.

The legality of abortion is a continuing issue and a major obstacle in delivering adequate and accessible services and it impacts on many other aspects of service provision.

“Abortion as a criminal offence can and does deter women from accessing abortion services through the health system, instead compelling them to procure an abortion outside the health system,” said Hannah Harborow, Amnesty International Australia Campaign Coordinator. “It can also result in doctors being reluctant to provide abortions even in circumstances where women are legally entitled to such procedures.”

As recommended by the UN Committee, which oversees the convention to which Australia is a state party, it is discriminatory for states and territories to criminalise medical procedures only needed by women and to not legally provide reproductive health services for women.

Amnesty International urges states to take all necessary measures to ensure that women and men are provided with full information on sexual and reproductive health as well as ensure that safe and legal abortion services are accessible to any woman who becomes pregnant as the result of rape, sexual assault or incest, or where a pregnancy poses a risk to a woman’s life or a grave risk to her health.

Amnesty International believes that women and men should be able to exercise their sexual and reproductive health rights free from coercion, discrimination and violence. International, regional and national human rights mechanisms have increasingly addressed unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion as a major public health concern, as opposed to a criminal concern, and a key cause of preventable maternal illness and death.