When politicians make ignorant statements in an election run-up period, there’s a fair chance they’re focus group-driven and designed to cater to the lowest common denominator of public taste. When they do it immediately afterwards, however, it’s a good bet they’re just displaying their own stupidity.
So it is with the opposing statements about late-term abortions by Mark Latham on the one hand, and federal Health Minister Tony Abbott and his Parliamentary Secretary Christopher Pyne on the other. Latham reckons Abbott and Pyne are gooses for making statements opposing later-term abortions:
Mr Abbott has supported comments by Mr Pyne, who has called for a ban on late-term pregnancy terminations.
The newly-appointed federal parliamentary secretary for health has also said abortions should never be carried out after 21 weeks.
The statements by Abbott and Pyne come in the wake of the 2002 annual report of the Consultative Council on Obstetric and Pediatric Mortality and Morbidity, showing an increase in late-term abortions in Victoria. The total number of late-term abortions (after 20 weeks) in Victoria in 2002 (the latest available figures) was 163, some 40% higher than the figure 2 years earlier.
Latham argues that “the choice about whether to terminate a pregnancy was up to the woman and her doctor“. But that isn’t the law anywhere in Australia:
For example, in Victoria, the meaning of “unlawfully” attempting to induce miscarriage under the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic), s 65, was determined in 1969 by a Victorian Supreme Court judge. The “Menhennitt ruling” stipulates that an abortion is not “unlawful” if a doctor believes that the abortion is necessary to preserve the woman’s life or her physical or mental health. The upper limit of gestation is undefined. The other aspect of Victoria’s abortion law, stated in s 10 of the Act, relates to “child destruction” (an unlawful intentional act causing the death of a child capable of being born alive) and is based on the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 (UK). This law states that a child is presumed to be capable of being born alive at 28 weeks. But it is unclear whether the law applies now from 2224 weeks, when some premature neonates can now be kept alive. Most significantly, there have been no judgments on what “unlawfully” means in this section.
Abortion law is a matter of state rather than federal law in Australia, and laws vary somewhat from state to state. But in general terms, late-term abortions are unlawful in just about every state and territory unless the mother’s life or health is seriously at risk.
Thus Latham is wrong as a matter of law in asserting that late-term abortion is “up to the woman and her doctor“. He’s also arguably wrong morally as well. Most premature babies over 26 weeks now survive, as do significant numbers as young as 22 weeks. So prima facie, aborting a foetus at over 20 weeks may well be killing a child already capable of viable life outside the womb. There is obviously room for disagreement about the rights and wrongs of such situations, but there are clearly a number of other legitimate interests in play, not least that of the unborn but possibly viable child. To state baldly that it’s purely between the woman and her doctor is crass and simplistic at the very least.
On the other hand, Abbott and Pyne are equally misguided in calling for a complete ban. An earlier 1998 study by the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria found that the vast majority of late-term abortions resulted from serious foetal abnormality or serious risk to the mother’s life (i.e. she may have died unless the foetus was aborted). In such circumstances, an inflexible outright ban on late-term abortions is just appalling: maternal death sentence by ministerial fiat.
However, the Consultative Council on Obstetric and Pediatric Mortality and Morbidity annual report rather complicates the picture. It finds that 103 of the 163 late-term abortions in 2002 were for serious foetal abnormality, while the other 60 were for “psycho-social reasons”. There’s room for serious doubt whether a viable child should be permitted to be killed for “psycho-social reasons” at the whim of the woman and her doctor (except perhaps for very serious depression where there’s a serious risk of maternal suicide), especially where there are certainly plenty of suitable potential adoptive parents available.
And even the 103 “serious foetal abnormalities” category raises more questions than it answers. This earlier media report observes:
The detection of congenital abnormalities, such as heart defects and Down syndrome, was the reason behind 103 abortions.
How serious were the heart defects? Might some of them have been curable surgically or by other means? And what of Down syndrome foetuses? Mightn’t there have been adoptive parents for them too? Many Down syndrome sufferers live fulfilled, happy worthwhile lives. One of them is young Matthew, an IT support worker at CDU. He’s a wonderful, happy, productive young man, a reliable and co-operative worker who only today installed some much-needed web-authoring software on my office PC. Should he have been able to be killed before birth at the whim of his mother and her doctor?
On the other hand, no doubt many of the 103 aborted foetuses with congenital abnormalities would have been born so seriously handicapped that their lives and those of everyone around them wold have been miserable. Termination in those cases might well be a blessing. But who should decide? And where should the dividing line be drawn? And are the figures actually rising, or is this just ordinary statistical variability? Buggered if I know. What I can say with confidence is that both asserting it’s between the mother and her doctor, and saying it should be banned completely, are equally obtuse responses to a complex and difficult problem.
PS – There are disturbing parallels with the Bush administration’s actions in relation to abortion law in the US. US governments lack constitutional power to prohibit abortion because of the Supreme Court’s elaboration of Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of due process in Roe v Wade. Consequently the Bush government, at the urging of the Religious Right, has undertaken collateral attacks such as denying government funding to abortion clinics and patients. cf Suggestions that the Coalition may move in a similar direction (and no doubt for similar reasons), because the federal Parliament here also lacks constitutional power to prohibit abortion:
He says there are no plans, currently, to stop Medicare payments for abortions, but he won’t guarantee that that won’t change in the future.