Earlier this year Labor MLA Wayne Berry stated abortion “must be safe, legal and preferably rare”. Some might be surprised that Berry would profess concern with making abortion rare.
Berry’s legislation, introduced into the Legislative Assembly this week, would strike down the few protections that would help achieve his goal of fewer abortions.
Berry’s new, free-market approach to abortion can only lead to more abortion. Berry wants to abolish laws restricting abortion and to repeal the Health Regulation (Maternal Health Information) Act 1998.
Should he succeed, there would be no cooling off period to give a woman time to consider the decision, and women would no longer have the right to have accurate, independent information on the physical and psychological risks of the procedure in the form of the informed consent booklet, to help them make an informed decision.
Berry has made the claim that this legislation forces women to look at foetal pictures, but it does nothing of the kind.
It ensures that women are “provided” with the informed consent booklet so that they have all the information to hand if they wish to use it. No more, no less.
Berry on the other hand wants to ensure that women are no longer allowed easy access to that information. His approach risks their informed consent to abortion.
Abolishing these laws would also take away what little protection there is for unborn children. How does Wayne Berry think abolishing these limited protections will help make abortion rare?
A report issued by the ACT Right to Life Association in March this year called Missing Children, Damaged Mothers, revealed that there were 1664 abortions in the ACT in the 1999-2000 financial year.
Two-thirds of teenage pregnancies in the ACT end in abortion and the rate for all ACT women is one abortion for every 2.5 live births. That’s certainly not rare.
The statistics published in the association’s report were based on statistics issued as required by the Health Regulation (Maternal Health Information) Act – the legislation Berry wants to repeal.
So without the statistics, how would he know if abortion ever became rare?
How would he understand the problem so that he could work to make it rare?
The association wrote to Berry to set out the problems revealed by the statistics, suggesting some possible courses of action to expand women’s choices, such as ensuring pregnant teenage women have good supportive structures to ensure they can finish their education.
Berry did not bother to write back.
The result of having no restrictions on abortion – the world desired by Berry – would be that the small but significant protective role of the current laws would be lost.
Several published studies such as We Women Decide (1994) and Giving Sorrow Words (2000) suggest that some women are coerced to have an abortion.
A cooling-off period can give a woman time to withstand the pressure to rush into an unwanted abortion, to consider her situation and to seek the support she needs.
The legislation also requires that an informed consent booklet be provided to women to ensure that they have access to accurate, independent information on abortion and their alternatives.
It is only by finding and providing real and attractive alternatives for women that we can make abortion rare.
Previously the primary source of information for women considering an abortion was the place offering the abortion.
Even Berry can’t bring himself to argue that abortion is a good thing.
Despite wanting to take away all restrictions and trying to ignore the deeper social problems underlying abortion, he still can’t quite convince the public that an abortion is anything less than a human tragedy. He still has to say that he wants abortion to be rare.
That reticence to confront abortion as human tragedy has been reflected in past elections in Berry’s reluctance to address the issue and come clean with his plans on abortion policy.
In a statement to the Assembly in August Berry said that “we need to stand up and make our position known . All candidates for the fifth election should be scrutinised for their policies and what they stand for . The history of the ACT Legislative Assembly is peppered with candidates who get elected with very little of their policies known, and the community needs no more surprises suddenly being sprung on them” (The Canberra Times, 9 August 2001).
Chief Minister Jon Stanhope’s recent surprise censoring of foetal pictures in the informed consent booklets comes to mind.
Berry has been more forthcoming this year, but it is revealing to look at Berry’s earlier election record in the light of this statement.
After the 1992 election Berry worked to open a private abortion clinic in Canberra.
Did he tell anyone about that before the election? No.
The day after the 1998 election, Berry announced he would be trying to decriminalise abortion.
Did he tell anyone about that before the election? No.
At every ACT election the ACT Right to Life Association has written to Mr Berry to ask him about his stance on abortion.
Has he ever answered? No.
So what is Berry’s real motive for such statements?
Perhaps he hoped that by raising this issue more than two months out from the ACT election that the electorate would have forgotten his statements by then.
Perhaps he hopes that the public will have forgotten his contribution to the human tragedy of abortion.
Berry can hardly claim a mandate for his actions. His vote has been dropping over past elections as his agenda has been revealed, from 16% of first preference votes in 1995 to 12% in 1998 and 7% this year.
Berry said that candidates for the Assembly should be scrutinised for what they stand for. Then let that scrutiny begin with him.
Let Berry tell the ACT electorate what he has done in the past, and what he will do in the future, to make abortion rare.
The ACT Right to Life Association has been working to make abortion rare for almost 30 years. Perhaps, at last, the time has come for Berry to do the same.
Mary Joseph is president of the ACT Right to Life Association Inc.