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Time to abort the law

By James McConvill - posted Friday, 24 February 2006

The Therapeutic Goods Amendment (Repeal of Ministerial Responsibility for the approval of RU486) Bill 2005, which proposed to remove the Federal Health Minister’s veto power over the availability of the abortion drug RU486 was recently passed by the Senate, with a vote of 45 to 28 in support of the Bill. The Bill proceeded to the House of Representative for a vote where it was passed with 95 for and 50 against.

Prime Minister John Howard has said that the vote on the Bill should be removed from the broader issue of whether abortion is right or wrong, but most commentators - and indeed Senators who considered the Bill, including Barnaby Joyce, acknowledge that it is hard to divorce the two.

The Bill provides us with an opportunity to lay our cards firmly on the table as to how, as a community, we should deal with the question of abortion. There are of course two contrasting views, with supporters on either side resolute.


This is all fine, and will continue to be the case. Debate is healthy, and you cannot change human nature.

But much more precarious is the role of the law in all this. Should the law restrict the availability of the drug RU486? Should we impose a penalty on individuals involved in an abortion in certain circumstances, or in all circumstances?

No doubt readers will hold some view on these questions. This is because each of us is directed by a moral compass, and accordingly we behave in a certain way. But this is morality, not law.

While it is impossible to separate the availability of RU486 from the broader issue of whether abortion is right or wrong, it is absolutely essential that we separate morality and law. The two are not the same, and should not be treated as such.

While it is often the case that what society considers to be morally repugnant becomes legally impermissible, and laws also help in shaping and refining morals, we should get away once and for all from the practice of filling our statute laws with fluffy moral principles.

It is all very well for cushy lobby groups, academics and parliamentarians squealing for this or that moral principle to be enshrined in law, but responding to the crow calls comes at a cost. Law is expensive. There is a cost in drafting the laws, a cost in administering the laws, and a cost in enforcing the laws.


On the other hand, morality costs little. Rather than requiring sandstone buildings, marble staircases and fat salaries which is the foundation for a system of regulation by formal laws, with morality we can simply sit little Mary on our lap and explain to her what is right and wrong.

A properly functioning society does not depend upon formal legal rules. Rather than legislate in an attempt to solve every problem, we should devote more time to informing members of the community, particularly young people, about moral issues and basic principles of morality that have developed over time. This should start in the home, and extend to schools, universities, and workplaces. Of course, different people will put a different spin on what is right and wrong, but that occurs now anyway.

If the ivory tower of formal legal regulation that sits at the centre of our modern society is influenced by moral principles which percolate in our homes and schools, why not just go straight to the source and save the train fare?

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About the Author

James McConvill is a Melbourne lawyer. The opinions expressed are his personal views only, and were written in the
spirit of academic freedom when James was employed as a university lecturer.

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