Abortion in Australia

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Abortion in Australia is largely regulated by the states and territories rather than the Federal Government. The grounds on which abortion is permitted in Australia vary by jurisdiction. In every state, abortion is legal to protect the life and health of a woman, though each state has a different definition. As of October 2019, all states and territories but South Australia have fully decriminalized abortion, starting with Western Australia in 1998.

Nowhere in Australia is there a requirement that a woman's sexual partner be notified of a proposed abortion or to consent to the procedure. Australian courts will not grant an injunction to restrain a pregnant woman from terminating her pregnancy, even if the applicant is the putative father of the fetus.[1] There is also no waiting period for an abortion. A minor does not need to notify a parent of a proposed abortion nor is parental consent required, except in Western Australia. In Western Australia, a proposed abortion by a minor under 16 years of age must be notified to one of the parents, except where permission has been granted by the Children's Court or the minor does not live with her parents.

Early-term surgical abortions are generally available around Australia for those women who seek them. Prosecutions against medical practitioners for performing abortions have not occurred for decades, with one exception—a prosecution in 1998 in Western Australia that soon after led to the explicit legalisation of on-request abortions under certain circumstances in that state. The procedure is partially funded under Medicare, the federal government-funded public health scheme, or by private healthcare insurers.

Mifepristone, also known as RU-486, an abortifacient, was banned in Australia until February 2006.[2] From 2006 to 2012, the drug was not registered in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), and medical practitioners needed Authorised Prescriber status from the TGA in order to prescribe it.[3] Caroline de Costa and colleagues were the first to receive this status and to import mifepristone for use in Australia.[4] Mifepristone was registered by the TGA in 2012, and currently requires special conditions and restrictions to be met in order to be used.[3]

In the case of “a child capable of being born alive” (usually taken to mean after 28 weeks of pregnancy), a termination may be subject to a separate crime of child destruction in some states and territories.


Since colonisation, abortion in Australia has always been regulated by state (previously colonial) law. Before the end of the 19th century, each colony had adopted the Imperial Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which in turn was derived from English laws from 1837, 1828 and 1803, which made abortion illegal under any circumstance. Since then, abortion law has continued to evolve in each State by case law and changes in legislation.

A legal precedent concerning the legality of abortion was set in Australia in 1969, by the Menhennitt ruling in the Victorian Supreme Court case R v Davidson,[5] which held that abortion was lawfully justified if "necessary to preserve the physical or mental health of the woman concerned, provided that the danger involved in the abortion did not outweigh the danger which the abortion was designed to prevent." The ruling was later largely adopted by courts in New South Wales,[6] and Queensland,[7] and was influential in some other states. Over time this has come to be broadly defined so as to include the mental health of the woman, to which unwanted pregnancy is interpreted as clinically injurious.

A number of federal politicians have expressed anti-abortion views including Senator Ron Boswell (who was for a time National Party leader in the Senate), Barnaby Joyce[8] and Tony Abbott (when he was federal Health Minister), who in 2004 described the scale of abortion as a "national tragedy".[9]

In the mid-1990s the conservative Howard government was in power in Australia, with conservative independent Tasmanian Senator Brian Harradine holding the balance of power in the Senate. Howard brokered a deal with Harradine to ensure his support for proposed bills, including the privatisation of national telecommunications provider Telecom (now Telstra). In return, Harradine received support for introducing restrictions on abortion.[10] Abortifacient drugs were designated as "restricted goods" which required approval from the health minister before the drug could be assessed by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which was required before drugs could be sold in Australia. This created a ministerial veto over such drugs. This ensured that RU-486, a drug widely used overseas as an abortifacient, was effectively banned in Australia until 2006. Health Minister Tony Abbott, and previous ministers used this process to prohibit the sale of RU-486 in Australia, by refusing to allow the drug to be assessed by the TGA.

In late 2005, a private member's bill was introduced in the Senate and passed on 10 February 2006 to transfer the veto over abortifacients from the health minister to the TGA. The bill was approved by the Houses of Representatives in March 2006.[11] Abbott responded to the vote by calling for the addition of a Medicare item number for funding of alternative counselling to pregnant women through church-affiliated groups to lower the national abortion rate,[12] without success. In 2010, while seeking election as Liberal Party leader, Abbott pledged not to make any changes to abortion laws, to ban funding for abortions through Medicare, or to ban drug RU-486.[9]

In 2017 Cory Bernardi moved a motion to ban abortion on gender grounds. Queensland LNP senator Barry O'Sullivan, Tasmanian Liberal Eric Abetz, frontbenchers Zed Seselja, Anne Ruston and Matt Canavan with One Nation's Fraser Anning, Brian Burston, Peter Georgiou and Pauline Hanson voted Yes on the Motion. It was voted down (10–36).[13][14]

The violence seen in the United States against abortion providers has generally not occurred in Australia, with two exceptions. In 2001, Peter Knight forced his way into a Melbourne clinic carrying a rifle, kerosene, and equipment to lock the doors of the clinic. Three people attempted to disarm him after he pointed his rifle at a woman at the clinic. He shot and killed a security guard. Afterwards, Knight, described by the prosecution as a "hermit obsessed with killing abortion doctors" was convicted of murder.[15][16] On 6 January 2009 a firebombing using Molotov cocktails was attempted at a medical clinic in Mosman Park, Western Australia. Faulty construction of the bombs limited damage to a single external burnt area, though if successful damage would have been severe. It is believed that the individuals who made the attack were responsible for graffiti "baby killers" on the site, indicating an anti-abortion reason for the attack. The site turned out to in fact not be an abortion clinic, though the attackers most likely were not aware of this.[17]

Another tactic adopted by anti-abortion campaigners is to form picket lines outside premises where abortions are being performed. In response, several states and territories have set "safe access zones", which prevent anti-abortion campaigners from protesting or counselling people about abortion within a proscribed area surrounding an abortion clinic.[18] In April 2019, the High Court of Australia upheld these laws after they were challenged by two people arrested for violating them. The petitioners claimed their right to freedom of political communication had been denied as a result of the laws, though the court dismissed the appeals, saying the laws served a legitimate purpose.[19]

In 2019 the Australian Labor Party unveiled a national abortion policy for the 2019 Australian federal election.[20] The party's policy included requiring public hospitals to offer abortion procedures consistently under new Commonwealth funding agreements, encouraging New South Wales to remove abortion from its criminal laws and building an abortion clinic in Tasmania.[20][21] In response Liberal Party leader Scott Morrison stated the issue was controversial and sensitive and decisions should be left to the states.[22] His Coalition colleagues were largely quiet on the matter,[22] while anti-abortion groups including the Australian Christian Lobby and Cherish Life campaigned against Labor on the issue.[23][24] Labor lost the 2019 election, with representative Ed Husic claiming that the misrepresentation of the party's abortion policy was a contributing factor.[25]

Abortion laws[edit]

Summary table[edit]

State or territory Status Details
Australian Capital Territory Yes Legal and accessible (no gestational limit) Must be provided by medical doctor. Health Minister may set 50m exclusion zones for protests.[26]
New South Wales and Norfolk Island Yes Legal. Accessible up to 22 weeks. Legal upon request up to 22 weeks and with the approval of two doctors thereafter. The law went into effect on 2 October 2019.[27] Safe access zones are set at 150m around abortion clinics since 1 July 2018.[28][29]
Northern Territory Yes Legal. Accessible up to 14 weeks.
Legal for up to 24 weeks’ gestation, implementing 150 meter protest exclusion zones, removing the requirement of parental approval for abortions and providing early medical abortions with tablets. After 14 weeks two doctors must approve; after 24 weeks illegal, except if needed to save the woman's life.[30] The law went into effect on 1 July 2017.[31][32]
Queensland Yes Legal. Accessible up to 22 weeks. Legal upon request up to 22 weeks and with the approval of two doctors thereafter. Safe access zones of 150 metres imposed around abortion clinics.[33] The law went into effect on 3 December 2018.[34][35]
South Australia Yes Legal. Accessible up to 23 weeks. Abortion is legal only when two doctors have certified that the termination is necessary to protect the life or health of the pregnant woman, or in cases where the child is likely to be handicapped.[36] Abortion must take place in a hospital and must be a resident of South Australia for at least 2 months.[26]
Tasmania Yes Legal. Accessible up to 16 weeks. Beyond 16 weeks legal with two doctors' approval. Illegal to protest within 150m of an abortion service.[26]
Victoria Yes Legal. Accessible up to 24 weeks. Beyond 24 weeks legal with two doctors approval. Illegal to protest within 150m of an abortion service.[26]
Western Australia Yes Legal. Accessible up to 20 weeks. Very restricted after 20 weeks.[26] Some restrictions for under 16yrs (parental notification).

Australian Capital Territory[edit]

In the Australian Capital Territory, reference to abortion as a criminal offence were repealed by the Crimes (Abolition of Offence of Abortion) Act 2002. Before then abortion law was for many years governed by case law under sections 82–84 of the Crimes Act 1900 of New South Wales.

Since 2015, it is an offence to protest within 50m of an abortion clinic within the Australian Capital Territory (otherwise called "protest free zones").[37][38]

Section 9 of the "Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT)" confirms that the right to life applies to a person from the time of birth. Full-term abortions on demand are legal in the ACT as there are no gestational limits.

New South Wales and Norfolk Island[edit]

Abortion was decriminalised in New South Wales on 2 October 2019 with the royal assent of the Abortion Law Reform Act 2019, passed a week earlier by both houses of the New South Wales parliament.[27][39] The legislation took abortion out of the 119-year-old criminal code and regulated it as a medical procedure.

Under the new law, abortions are made available on request during the first 22 weeks of gestation. Extra safeguards are in place for abortions after that time, up until the child's birth. The safeguards require two doctors to agree that it is appropriate, based on the woman's current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances. This is similar to laws in other states and territories. However, the medical practitioner performing the abortion has obligation to give appropriate medical care if the abortion results in a live baby being born.[39]

Prior to the new law, abortion had been explicitly listed in New South Wales as a crime under sections 82–84 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) since 1900,[40] but the interpretation of the law is subject to the Levine ruling, from R v Wald of 1971,[6] itself derived from the Victorian Menhennitt ruling, which held an abortion to be legal if a doctor had an honest and reasonable belief that, due to 'any economic, social or medical ground or reason', the abortion was necessary to 'preserve the woman involved from serious danger to her life or physical or mental health which the continuance of the pregnancy would entail'.[6]

This was expanded by CES v Superclinics Australia Pty Ltd (1995),[41] which extended the period during which health concerns might be considered from the duration of pregnancy to any period during the woman's life, even after the birth of the child. This arguably precludes any successful prosecutions for illegal abortions. Despite this, in 2006, a doctor, Suman Sood, was convicted of two counts of performing an illegal abortion where she failed to enquire as to whether a lawful reason for performing the abortion did exist.[42][43]

Since 1 July 2016, all NSW laws also apply to the approximately 2000 residents on Norfolk Island, under both the Norfolk Island Legislation Amendment Act 2015 and the Territories Legislation Amendment Act 2016, after the Norfolk Legislative Assembly was abolished on 1 July 2015.[44][45][46]

In June 2016, Greens upper house MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi was to introduce a bill decriminalising abortion in NSW. However, on the eve of the introduction of the bill on 23 June 2016, it was removed from the order of business for the following day, despite being first in the order of precedence for months, scheduled and publicly announced.[47][48]

In August 2016, Mehreen Faruqi released an exposure draft of the Abortion Law Reform (Miscellaneous Acts Amendment) Bill 2016 to "Repeal sections 82–84 of the Crimes Act, relating to abortion offences; Provide for a 150m safe access zone around abortion clinics and service providers to ensure a patient's right to medical privacy; and Require doctors to disclose conscientious objection at the start of the consultation and refer patients to another doctor who does not have such an objection or to the local Women's Health NSW centre".[49] The bill was introduced to the upper house on 11 August 2016.[50] It was defeated in the second reading 25-14 on 11 May 2017.[51]

Since 1 July 2018, law was passed making it illegal to protest within 150m of an abortion service.[28][29]

On 1 August 2019, a new abortion reform bill to decriminalise abortions in NSW, known as Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019, was introduced by independent MP Alex Greenwich to the lower house of parliament. The bill passed the lower house on 8 August 2019. The upper house passed the bill with new amendments on 25 September 2019, including a name change of the bill to Abortion Law Reform Bill 2019.[52]. The next day, the amended bill passed the lower house, and was assented by the Governor on 2 October 2019, becoming law with immediate effect.[39][27]

Northern Territory[edit]

In the Northern Territory, abortion is legal for up to 24 weeks’ gestation, implementing a 150-metre "safe access zone", removing the requirement of parental approval for abortions and providing early medical abortions with tablets.[30] The law went into effect on 1 July 2017.[31][53]


Since 3 December 2018, abortion in Queensland has been available on request during the first 22 weeks of gestation. After that period, two doctors must sign off on the procedure before a woman can access an abortion unless there is a danger to the life of the woman or, in a multiple pregnancy, another unborn child.[54][55]

Prior to December 2018, abortion access in Queensland was determined by the 1986 McGuire ruling, which declared abortion to be legal if necessary to preserve the woman from a serious danger to her life or health—beyond the normal dangers of pregnancy and childbirth—that would result if the pregnancy continued, and is not disproportionate to the danger being averted. Until 2008, abortion law in Queensland closely mirrored the law in Victoria. The McGuire ruling was affirmed in the 1994 case Veivers v. Connolly, by a single judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland.[1]

South Australia[edit]

In South Australia, South Australian residents up to 23 weeks pregnant can have an early medication or surgical abortion.[56]

Legislation in 1969 legalised abortion when necessary to protect the life or physical or mental health of the woman—taking into account the current and reasonably foreseeable future—or in cases when the child was likely to be born with serious handicaps.[57] Abortions must be performed before a time limit of 28 weeks of pregnancy. Abortions must be performed in a hospital and be approved by two physicians, and are also subject to a residency requirement (patient must be a resident of South Australia for at least two months). The hospital, dual approval and residency requirement may be waived in an emergency. Abortions in South Australia are available for free or low cost at some of the public health facilities including The Pregnancy Advisory Centre.[58] This Pregnancy Advisory Centre is a registered hospital with doctors available for approval. Both medical and surgical abortions are performed.

A bill fully decriminalizing abortion is expected to be presented to the state parliament in early 2020.[59]


In Tasmania, since 21 November 2013, abortions are allowed on request up to 16 weeks of pregnancy. After 16 weeks abortions can be performed up to birth of the child requiring consent of two doctors on medical or psychological grounds. The law also criminalises filming, "intimidation" and "protests" (where handing out information, offering pregnant women help and support, praying, and so forth is deemed intimidating and offensive) within 150 metres of abortion clinics ("protest free zones").[60][61]

From 1925 until 2001, Tasmania's Criminal Code prohibited "unlawful abortion" without actually stating what was lawful or not. While it had never actually been prosecuted, it had been held that Victoria's Menhennitt ruling of 1969 and New South Wales' Levine ruling applied in Tasmanian law. In late 2001, the Criminal Code was clarified to state that an abortion must be carried out under a set of criteria resembling those of the South Australian requirements.


In Victoria, since 2008, abortions are allowed on request up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, with abortions after that time, up until the child's birth, requiring two doctors to agree that it is appropriate, based on the woman's current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances.[62][63]

Before 2008, abortion law was based on the Victorian Crimes Act as interpreted by the Menhennitt ruling of 1969, in the case of R v Davidson. Under the ruling, abortions were legal if necessary to preserve the woman from a serious danger to her life or health—beyond the normal dangers of pregnancy and childbirth—that would result if the pregnancy continued, and is not disproportionate to the danger being averted. Menhennitt's ruling remained the basis for abortion law in Victoria for almost 40 years, until the Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 (Vic) formally decriminalised abortion.

Western Australia[edit]

In Western Australia, since 20 May 1998, abortions are allowed on request up to 20 weeks of pregnancy—subject to counselling by a medical practitioner other than the one performing the abortion—or when serious personal, family or social consequences will result to the woman if an abortion is not performed, when the life or physical or mental health of the woman is endangered and when the pregnancy causes serious danger to the woman's mental health. After 20 weeks of pregnancy abortions may only be performed if the fetus is likely to be born with severe medical problems—which must be confirmed by two independently appointed doctors. In the event of the woman being under 16 years of age one of her parents must be notified, except where permission has been granted by the Children's Court or the woman does not live with her parents.[26]

Until 1998, Western Australian law apparently mirrored that of Queensland, though it was never clarified by case law or legislation. Following the 1998 announcement of the prosecution of two Perth doctors for performing an illegal abortion—the first such prosecution in over 30 years—a private member's bill was introduced by Cheryl Davenport, a member of the Australian Labor Party in the Upper House of the Western Australian parliament to amend the law.

Child destruction laws[edit]

Each state and territory has its own criminal code relating to child destruction. The offence is called "killing unborn child" and can be committed only around the time of childbirth[64] in Queensland,[65] Western Australia,[66] and the Northern Territory.[67] It is called "causing death of child before birth" in Tasmania.[68] In South Australia, it comes under the heading of "abortion".[69] The definition is somewhat broader in the Australian Capital Territory,[64][70] and comparably broad to English law in Tasmania[68] and South Australia.[69][64] The offence was abolished in Victoria by the Abortion Law Reform Act 2008 (Victoria).[71]

New South Wales does not have a child destruction enactment,[64] but the Crimes Amendment (Grievous Bodily Harm) Act 2005 (NSW) amended the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) so that s 4(1)(a) now defines "grievous bodily harm" as including "the destruction (other than in the course of a medical procedure) of the foetus of a pregnant woman, whether or not the woman suffers any other harm".[72] This was further amended by the Abortion Law Reform Act 2019 to "the destruction (other than in the course of a medical procedure or a termination of a pregnancy in accordance with the Abortion Law Reform Act 2019) of the foetus of a pregnant woman, whether or not the woman suffers any other harm."


There is a lack of consistent data collection standards across states due to differences in definitions, making it difficult or impossible to accurately quantify the number of abortions performed in Australia each year.[73] There were an average of 75,700 Medicare-funded procedures that could result in an "abortive outcome" performed each year from 1995 to 2004, but this figure includes miscarriages as well as terminations. On the other hand, many women who have medical abortions performed at private hospitals may not claim the Medicare rebate.[73]

South Australia is the only state which collects and publishes data on abortions. In 2002 there were 5147 medical abortions performed in South Australia, or 17.2 per 1000 women aged 15–44. Projected nationally, this would suggest that about 73,300 abortions were performed nationwide. This does not take into account differences between states. For example, unpublished data from Western Australia estimates a rate of 19.4 terminations per 1000 women in the same age bracket, which would indicate about 82,700 abortions projected nationally.[73]

The South Australian data also indicates that the vast majority of abortions performed 1994–2002 occurred before 14 weeks gestation. Less than 2% took place at or after 20 weeks.[73]

Public opinion[edit]

Since at least the 1980s, opinion polls have shown a majority of Australians support abortion rights,[74] and that support for abortion is increasing.[75]

  • In 1987, a Saulwick poll found only about 7 per cent of Australians would not approve of abortions under any circumstances.[76]
  • In 2003, a poll by The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA) found that 81% of Australians believe a woman should have the right to choose an abortion, and 9% believe they should not; 7% were neutral and 2% could not decide.[75]
  • In 2005, a Nielsen Corporation poll found that 56% of Australians thought the abortion laws in place, which generally allow abortion for the sake of life, health, or economic factors, were "about right", 16% want changes in law to make abortion "more accessible" and 17% want changes to make it "less accessible".[77]
  • In 2006, a poll by Roy Morgan Research found that 65% of the Australians approved of surgical abortion and 22% disapproved, and that 62% believed RU-486 should be available to women while 31% believed it should not.[78]
  • In 2006, interviews found that 80% of Australians disapproved the use of sex-selective abortion.[79]
  • In 2007, a poll by AuSSA found that 4% of Australians are opposed to abortion in all circumstances, 33% believe abortion should be allowed in certain circumstances and 57% believed it should be readily available whenever a woman wants one; 7% were undecided or did not respond.[80]
  • In 2009, a study of polls conducted during Australia's 2007 federal elections found that a clear majority of both Labor Party and Liberal Party voters support abortion rights.[80] The study also showed that 77 per cent of winning candidates in the 2007 election favoured an unrestricted approach to abortion.[81]
  • In 2010, a study published in The Medical Journal of Australia found that 61% of Australians said abortion should be lawful without question in the first trimester of pregnancy, while 26% said it should be lawful depending on the reason.[82] In the second trimester and third trimesters, support for outright lawful abortion was 12% and 6% respectively, while 57% and 42% respectively said it depended on the circumstances.[83]

See also[edit]


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