On 10 May 2016, Independent MP for Cairns, Rob Pyne, tabled the Abortion Law Reform (Woman’s Right To Choose) Amendment Bill 2016 in the Queensland Parliament.If passed, the bill would decriminalise abortion in Queensland by simply repealing the three abortion statutes of the Criminal Code (sections 224, 225 and 226). On 26 May, that bill was referred to the parliamentary Health, Communities, Disability Services, and Domestic and Family Violence Pregnancy Committee for an inquiry.
Over June to August 2016, the Committee held eight days of public hearings and collected over 1400 submissions from expert groups and members of the public as part of their inquiry. Much of the opposition to the bill was based on claims there would be absolutely no regulation on abortion if it were to be completely decriminalised (untrue, as it happens), with particular concerns about the lack of legal gestational limits under the proposed regulation. Despite that, expert groups like the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists supported the bill as it stood [pdf].
On 17 August, Rob Pyne MP introduced a second bill, entitled the Health (Abortion Law Reform) Amendment Bill 2016. This was in response to the concern about the lack of gestational limits within his initial piece of legislation, and also included a conscientious objection clause and the establishment of exclusion zones around abortion providers. This bill was intended to sit alongside the first as a companion piece of legislation, to give Queenslanders decriminalisation as well as regulations in health law. It too was referred to the Health Committee for inquiry.
On 26 August, the Health Committee tabled their report into the first bill. Despite the fact that the inquiry heard a significant amount of evidence in support of changing Queensland’s current abortion law from expert witnesses in law, medicine, psychology and ethics, its report declined to recommend that parliament pass Pyne’s bill. The recommendation was at odds with much of what the report included as evidence, including a statement that decriminalising abortion would “effectively align the law of Queensland with Australia’s international legal obligations” under several human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The report also details evidence regarding the extremely low numbers of later gestation abortions and outlines the regulatory framework that oversees abortion provision in Queensland. Documentation from the inquiry, including transcripts of all expert briefings and public hearings, as well as submissions made during the inquiry, is still available on the Queensland Parliament’s website.
Over September and October, the Health Committee conducted their inquiry into the second bill. This included four days of public hearings and over 1200 written submissions from expert groups and members of the public. At the end of this process, the Committee found themselves unable to reach an agreement on whether to recommend the bill be passed or not. Documentation from the inquiry, including the report, transcripts of all expert briefings and public hearings, as well as submissions made during the inquiry, is available on the Queensland Parliament’s website.
On 29 November 2016, Rob Pyne MP moved a motion that the two bills be debated and voted on cognately, or together, on the floor of the parliament, once the inquiry into the second bill is concluded and the Health Committee have tabled their report. The motion narrowly passed, 44-43, with all ALP and Independent MPs voting in support, and all LNP and Katter Party MPs voting against. Speaker Peter Wellington cast his deciding vote in support of the motion and it was passed.
On 17 February 2017 the Health Committee’s report into the second bill was tabled in parliament. The report stated the Committee were unable to agree on a recommendation. Debate on the two bills was expected to commence on 1 March, the first available sitting day after the release of the report.
On 27 February 2017, two days before the parliamentary debate and a possible vote, the LNP announced that the party room had discussed the bills at length and that “every single member of the LNP party room indicated that, in good conscience, they cannot support these bills.” This effectively meant the bills would fail on the floor of the parliament, as some ALP MPs were expected to vote against them.
On 28 February, it was announced that Rob Pyne would be withdrawing his bills from parliament and that the matter would be referred to the Queensland Law Reform Commission for inquiry. The announcements were made at a press conference by Rob Pyne, the Premier, Deputy Premier, and Attorney-General. Rob Pyne later told mediathat he’d withdrawn the bills because given the previous day’s announcement by the LNP they had no chance of success:
“I would have enjoyed nothing more than to hold recalcitrant MPs to account, but I felt that would have been self-indulgent to do that just to gain that satisfaction, if it meant the bill going down.”
The ABC reported that the Law Reform Commission “would be asked to look at options to remove the termination of pregnancies by medical practitioners from the Criminal Code and to look at a new framework.”
On 21 June 2017, almost four months from when the referral was announced, its Terms of Reference were published on the Queensland Law Reform Commission website. The Commission have been given until 30 June 2018 to make recommendations to Parliament on how to modernise and clarify the law in relation to termination of pregnancy, and to draft legislation in line with these recommendations. No further information on the format of the inquiry is yet available, but the Terms of Reference are available to download in full from the QRLC website.