By Mary Joseph
The Canberra Times
23 January 2002
IN ANY debate on abortion laws, both the life of the unborn child and the damage to women need to be acknowledged. Yet in supporting legislation to decriminalise abortion, Legislative Assembly Member Roslyn Dundas attempts to normalise the tragedy of abortion by treating it as just another medical procedure (CT, January 6).
The abortion rate in the ACT is a devastating one abortion for every 2.5 live births. It is time for both the Government and community to address the real issues of support for pregnant women and the value we place on children and motherhood. We need to face up to our responsibilities and address directly the problems women face – not just offer them an abortion to treat the “symptom”.
We need to provide real alternatives to abortion and work to improve our workplaces, schools and tertiary institutions so that they will support and value all pregnant women and women with children. No woman should ever feel forced to choose between continuing her education or career and giving birth to her child. Yet this is the tragic choice that is normalised and accepted by decriminalising abortion.
Decriminalisation will not lead to a reduction in the abortion rate, as Dundas claims. The only accurate and comprehensive statistics on abortion collected in Australia over the past 30 years are for South Australia. They show that the abortion rate has increased over the past 30 years since abortion was legalised in that State from six per 1000 women of reproductive age in 1970 to 17.8 per 1000 women in 1999.
Annual figures for Canberra record 1600 pregnancies ended by abortion. The loss of life these figures represent is a profound social tragedy. Our present laws acknowledge the devastating nature of abortion. Normalising abortion by removing it from the Crimes Act will only entrench this tragedy more deeply into our society, making it even harder for women to continue their pregnancies and give birth to their children.
Proponents of decriminalisation make the irresponsible claim that the Crimes Act provisions on abortion are somehow aimed at punishing women.
The reality is that these laws are protective, not punitive. They have never been used to prosecute or punish women – they are there to protect the value of the life of the unborn child. Abolishing the Crimes Act provisions would leave the community no recourse to prosecute a doctor for performing late term abortions.
These laws also meet important human rights obligations under international law. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 states that “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth” (Preamble).
Governments must recognise that “every child has the inherent right to life” and ensure the child’s “survival and development” to the maximum extent possible (Article 6). What will it say about our commitment to human rights if we recklessly throw out all ACT laws protecting children before birth?
Dundas and other advocates of decriminalisation shy away from the grim reality of what this “procedure” really is: an invasive, violent act that dehumanises women and children. Descriptions of abortion such as “a common gynaecological surgical procedure” try to hide the fact that abortion takes the life of a child growing in her mother’s womb. But the reality that pregnancy is an extraordinary and beautiful relationship involving two bodies, two lives, cannot easily be suppressed.
We can now see this child clearly thanks to the remarkable developments in foetal medicine over the last 30 years. Dramatic advances in the care and survival rates of premature babies have highlighted the unmistakable humanity of these tiniest persons long before full-term. Doctors are now treating unborn children as unique patients, through ultrasound technology and foetal surgery, proving that an unborn child can experience pain from as early as 13 weeks.
The bill introduced by Wayne Berry to remove the Crimes Act provisions on abortion flies in the face of these medical advances and findings. It would leave no legal means to discourage mid and late-term abortions in the ACT now or in the future.
Late-term abortion specialist Dr David Grundmann says that he regularly performs abortions to 24 weeks and that he would consider performing abortions to 28 weeks.
We must work to develop genuine, caring and compassionate responses to unplanned pregnancies, not sweep away the law that affirms the truth everyone, deep down, really knows: that pregnancy involves something extraordinary, uniquely worthy of protection – a life within a life.