Federal Parliament has had a Clayton’s debate on abortion - that is, the abortion debate you have when you’re not having an abortion debate.
Hypocrisy reigned supreme as MP after MP asserted that the Bill to clear the way for the abortion pill RU486 to be introduced in Australia had nothing to do with the abortion issue - this new method was simply a technical matter best left to scientific and medical experts.
Many MPs who voted for the Bill proclaimed they were personally opposed to abortion, but obviously did not want to consider the social and ethical implications of condoning the 90,000 abortions performed each year in Australia for financial or social reasons.
This was a matter for the States, they said, ignoring the fact that, at least in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, the law still states that abortion is illegal except “for the preservation of the mother’s life”.
In 1969 and 1970, judicial rulings by Menhennitt in Victoria and Levine in NSW interpreted the law to make abortion in those states lawful where a continuation of the pregnancy presented a serious risk to the mother’s physical or mental health. Even though he followed these precedents, Justice Maguire in his ruling in a Queensland abortion trial in 1986, said: “There is no legal justification for abortion on demand … The law in this state has not abandoned its responsibility as guardian of the silent innocence of the unborn."
So we have judge-made law which has never been tested in higher courts and is not being enforced.
It is unfortunate that the reason a number of MPs voted to support the Bill against their consciences may have been that they were concerned about the supposed 60 per cent, 70 per cent or 80 per cent support for abortion as shown in various opinion polls over the years.
This apparent support for the status quo is a result of these polls skimming the surface of the issue and asking questions based on slogans such as “Do you support free, safe legal abortion on demand?” or “Do you support a women’s right to choose?” or “Do you believe that abortion should be a matter between a woman and her doctor?”
The issue is more complex than this. Most Australians do not see it as a black and white issue and therefore market research has to drill down with specific, objectively-worded questions to find out what the Australian public really believes.
Last month, the Australian Federation of Right to Life Associations released a 52-page report entitled What Australians Really Think About Abortion (pdf file 550KB), containing the results of a comprehensive national public opinion poll conducted last year by independent market research company Market Facts.
This telephone survey of 1,200 people shows that 51 per cent of Australians are opposed to abortions performed for financial or social reasons (with 39 per cent in favour) and 53 per cent are against Medicare funding of abortion in these circumstances (again with 39 per cent in favour). This means a majority of Australians are actually opposed to 98 per cent of all abortions performed in this country.
This groundbreaking research also shows that 78 per cent of Australians oppose Medicare funding of late-term abortions (past 20 weeks of pregnancy) and 67 per cent are against Medicare funding after the first trimester (13 weeks).
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