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Tasmania to amend law to decriminalise abortion

Tasmanian Health Minister Michelle O'Byrne has moved to decriminalise abortion in the state. AAP/Scott Gelston

Tasmanian Health Minister Michelle O’Byrne has moved to amend the state’s abortion law to ensure women will no longer face the threat of criminal charges for having a pregnancy terminated.

The proposed changes would bring Tasmania into line with Victoria and the ACT where health laws, not criminal laws, regulate access to the procedure.

“It’s time the law reflected community expectations and medical advances in the safety of the procedure and recognised that unplanned pregnancies will occur,” Ms O’Byrne said today.

“Under the proposed changes, a doctor can perform a termination procedure up to and including 24 weeks gestation as long as the woman has consented.

"After 24 weeks, the obligation to obtain the approval of two doctors will remain.”

The move has been welcomed by the Public Health Association of Australia, which said research had recently revealed many Tasmanians were unaware that abortion was still illegal in Tasmania.

“The fact that the current legislation is positioned in the criminal code has resulted in confusion for medical practitioners. There is misunderstanding about the circumstances in which a termination can be performed legally. This has resulted in poor service delivery, where the public health system does not perform terminations, there is a dependency on fly-in interstate doctors, and a necessity for some women to travel interstate,” said Dr Ingrid van der Mei, president of the Tasmanian branch of the PHAA.

“The new legislation is expected to overcome the current ambiguity and should protect both medical practitioners and patients,” she said.

The move is a sign that people view the Victorian act favourably, said Kate Gleeson, ARC research fellow in politics at Macquarie University.

“It’s a smart law and a modern law taking into account different medical practices now.”

The Victorian law authorises nurses to subscribe medical abortions through abortion pill RU486.

“We don’t know in NSW, but it looks like only doctors can prescribe RU486.

Victoria was really clever by putting in a clause allowing nurses to give medical abortions. No other jurisdiction does at the moment.”

The move by Minister O’Byrne comes as deputy Victorian premier Peter Ryan told the media new Victorian Premier Denis Napthine would discuss changing abortion laws with MP Geoff Shaw.

Dr Gleeson said Victoria’s law amendment was very thorough and it was scare mongering to suggest it might be changed.

“There’s not been a lot of examples of the law changing, but the climate can change in that people think it’s ok to prosecute abortion crimes,” she said.

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