The abortion laws passed in the Northern Territory in March are being followed by clinical guidelines, due to be released this month, which the government hopes will provide the community with safety and clarification. 

But many fear that they will do nothing other than confirm the serious shortfalls in the liberalised laws and that women’s health and wellbeing will be placed in danger.  

One example of the ill-conceived abortion laws was the creation of “safe access” exclusion zones of 150 metres around facilities where abortion procedures are undertaken having the effect of prohibiting helpful communication within these zones.

Real questions exist over the validity of these exclusion zone laws with University of Queensland Professor and constitutional law expert, Nicholas Aroney, believing they are open to challenge on the grounds that they contravene Australia’s constitution.

Not only does this law prohibit people from praying on the footpath outside the hospital, it compromises the ability of health care workers, spouses, family or close friends to speak to their patients, their daughter, their partner, or their friend in any way that might be considered to dissuade them from proceeding with an abortion.

For medical staff, this represents an untenable limitation on their ability to offer the impartial advice required by the practice of their profession.

Interestingly, such restrictions contravene the Code of Conduct for Doctors in Australia developed by the Medical Board of Australia, which states that “Doctors have a duty to make the care of patients their first concern and to practice medicine safely and effectively … Doctors have a responsibility to protect and promote the health of individuals and the community ... Good communication underpins every aspect of good medical practice.”

Exclusion zones introduce the possibility that women might proceed with an abortion only because their medical advisers are unable to advise them freely of alternatives. This obviously places doctors, medical staff and counsellors in an untenable ethical position and exposes women and their unborn babies to the risk of proceeding on an irreversible course of action with incomplete advice. It cannot be supported on the basis of serving women’s best interests.

One can only hope that common sense prevails and that the clinical guidelines will address this and many other issues.