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6 min read

Protecting reproductive rights in Australia

Profile of Dom O'Donnell
Written by Dom O'DonnellPosted on 17/5/2022

Here in Australia, we have seen a great deal of progress for reproductive rights in recent years: the decriminalisation of abortion in Queensland and New South Wales; and the creation and defence of safe access zone laws to stop harassment and intimidation outside abortion clinics across the country.

What’s happening in the US right now underscores the importance of advancing this work here in Australia and defending our hard-won gains.

“What’s happening in the US right now underscores the importance of advancing this work here in Australia and defending our hard-won gains,” says Hugh de Kretser, the Human Rights Law Centre’s Executive Director.

We caught up with Hugh for an overview of the progress we have achieved here in Australia and for some insight into why ongoing support from funders like the Impact Fund community is so crucial to this work.

Tell us about the Human Rights Law Centre and the work you do.

The Human Rights Law Centre uses strategic legal action, policy solutions and advocacy to support people in communities to eliminate inequality and injustice, and build a fairer, more compassionate Australia. Reproductive Rights is one of the key projects we have been working on over the past decade.

The grant from the Impact Fund was possibly one of the most successful grants in the Human Rights Law Centre’s history.

The Impact Fund community began supporting Human Rights Law Centre’s work in reproductive rights in 2018. Why was this a critical time for this work?

Hugh is Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre.

The grant from the Impact Fund was possibly one of the most successful grants in the Human Rights Law Centre’s history. When we started talking to the Impact Fund, it was a pivotal moment – we had critical opportunities to decriminalise abortion in Queensland and New South Wales, and a real risk of wind-back in Victoria and Tasmania. We were absolutely thrilled that the Impact Fund community was able to support us in a flexible, quick and agile way that enabled us to take advantage of those opportunities – to achieve reform and protect the progress already made.

As I answer this question, I’m here at the Community of Giving – 100 metres down the road from the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic. For decades, women, their partners and the staff of the clinic were harassed, intimidated and abused as they went to see their doctor to access reproductive health services. Twenty years ago last July, Steve Rogers, the security guard at that clinic was murdered.

This was an issue that demanded attention but for a whole range of reasons, connected to gender inequality, that action was not happening. So we worked with the clinic, partners and supportive politicians to get safe access zone laws, and those laws have proven to be incredibly effective. The day those laws came in, Dr Susie Allanson, the clinic’s psychologist and a key advocate for the laws, said it was delightfully peaceful – there was no one outside the clinic intimidating and abusing the people going to see their doctor.

What work is still needed in this space?

There are two things. Firstly, in terms of legislation we have still got unfinished work in Western Australia. Working with partners, we have been able to achieve decriminalisation of abortion now across the country, except for Western Australia. There is a window now with the current West Australian government where we have an opportunity to finally remove abortion from the criminal law and make sure it is dealt with as a health issue as it should be. South Australia passed laws to decriminalise abortion over a year ago but they haven’t yet been operationalised, so we also need to see that happen.

Secondly, we need to make sure there is no wind-back. What we have seen, particularly in the United States, is that there are constant attempts to wind back hard-won gains. Anti-choice politicians and activists in Australia are borrowing tactics from United States. The attempt to challenge safe access zone laws in the High Court was just one example. The Impact Fund’s support helped to successfully defend those laws. We need constant vigilance to defend gains and to make sure there is practical access to reproductive health services across the country.

Success was the product of deep collaborative partnerships between women’s rights advocates, lawyers, health professionals, politicians, philanthropists and more.



Pictured on the day the High Court confirmed that women have the right to safely and privately access reproductive healthcare, Human Rights Law Centre’s Adrianne Walters (left) speaks to media alongside Dr Susie Allanson (centre), who worked as a clinical psychologist at the Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic for 26 years, and Jennifer Kanis (right) from Maurice Blackburn.

How important is the ongoing support you receive from funders like the Impact Fund community?

The success we had through the Impact Fund grant for our reproductive rights work was unusual. It exceeded our expectations and the timeframe in which we achieved that success was very rare. That success was the product of deep collaborative partnerships between women’s rights advocates, lawyers, health professionals, politicians, philanthropists and more. The wins we played a part in securing came off the back of generations of advocacy. We must recognise the long-term hard work that goes into achieving success like this.

What I have seen in my work over the past two decades is a real shift in philanthropy towards longer-term trust-based funding, and a greater willingness to fund change-based work.

We are so much more effective now at understanding how to achieve systemic positive change in this country.

It has been fantastic to see the evolution of ACF and the initiatives like the Impact Fund backing systemic change, looking at the big challenges happening in our nation and seeing how philanthropy can support positive change to address them.

We are so much more effective now at understanding how to achieve systemic positive change in this country.

Learn more about the Human Rights Law Centre’s Reproductive Rights project and the Impact Fund’s support here

Visit the Human Rights Law Centre’s website: hrlc.org.au

Feature image: Pictured on the day the High Court confirmed that women have the right to safely and privately access reproductive healthcare are Human Rights Law Centre’s Adrianne Walters with Tania Penovic, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Jennifer Kanis, Maurice Blackburn and Dr Susie Allanson, who worked as a clinical psychologist at the Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic for 26 years.