(CNSNews.com) - The first national abortion estimates compiled in Australia reveal that more than one of every four pregnancies in the country ends in an abortion, figures likely to fuel the debate at a time when the issue has returned to the center of the political agenda.
Campaigners are pushing for the legalization of the RU-486 abortion pill while opponents press for changes including the introduction of a "time-to-reflect" period before a woman considering an abortion is able to have one.
Abortion statistics in Australia always have been hard to come by, because most states don't keep accurate figures. Many women who have abortions get state Medicare funding, but records there are also not accurate because there is no specific Medicare "item number" for abortions.
Now, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), an independent health and welfare information agency, has released figures which -- although still estimates -- are thought to be more accurate than anything available before.
Using data from Medicare and hospital morbidity records, the institute estimated that 84,218 pregnancies ended in abortion in 2003.
That same year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 251,200 babies were born in Australia, a country with a total population of 20.4 million.
In a report released this week, the AIHW said women aged 20-24 were most likely to have an abortion, with a rate of 32 in every 1,000 women recorded. The national average was 19.7 abortions per 1,000 women of child-bearing age (15-44 years old).
Restrictions on abortion in Australia vary in different jurisdictions, but in practice abortion is virtually available on demand.
In the one state where statistics are monitored by law, South Australia, in a typical recent year less than three percent of abortions were requested because of rape, incest, specific medical condition or "fetal abnormality." More than 97 percent were approved for reasons of the mental well-being of the mother, grounds which opponents say can be interpreted so widely so as to be practically meaningless.
A small, Christian-based political party that won its first seat in the federal Senate last year also wants to see a mandatory "cooling-off" period after a woman requests an abortion.
Senator Steve Fielding of Family First said a three-day waiting period was essential, and that women should be offered alternatives to abortion.
Melinda Tankard Reist, the Australian author of a book entitled \lang3081 Giving Sorrow Words: Women's Stories of Grief After Abortion, also supports the idea of what she called a "\lang3081 short time-to-reflect period."
"M\lang3081 any women report feeling rushed and railroaded into a hasty decision which they later regret," she said Wednesday. "A small waiting time could help them buy some time to find support or to get out of a coercive situation."
In one advance for prolifers this week, government ministers approved Medicare funding for pregnancy counseling as well as a telephone helpline for women considering an abortion.
Tankard Reist, who is spokeswoman for a body called Women's Forum Australia , welcomed the steps, saying they were long overdue.
She stressed that it was important women receive "\lang3081 professional counselling independent of the vested interests of the abortion provider, to enable them to make an informed decision."
"Too much of what masquerades as 'counselling' by the abortion industry is oriented towards a decision in favour of abortion."
Counsellors should also ensure that women were "fully informed of the well documented health risks" of having an abortion, she added.
'Commonsense measures needed'
Australian lawmakers will next year consider whether an effective ban on mifepristone, the chemical abortion drug also known as RU-486, should be lifted.
The campaign has been driven by women lawmakers who say it's especially unfair for women in rural areas -- where it may be difficult to access abortion clinics -- not to have the right to obtain the drug.
Health Minister Tony Abbott is a firm opponent, and has drawn flak from advocates who accuse him of bringing his Catholic views into government policy.
The issue has already sparked vigorous debate -- prolifers have dubbed RU-486 a "human pesticide" while proponents call it a "safe and welcome alternative" to surgical abortion - and this is expected to pick up as the vote draws nearer.
Tankard Reist said the abortion estimates released this week were conservative as many abortions were not reported. The figures were "a sign that we have failed women."
S he was pleased abortion was back on the agenda despite efforts by some people to shut down the debate.
"M\lang3081 y hope is that ideology will not triumph over commonsense practical measures to improve the situation for women and their babies. Unfortunately, some in the 'pro-choice' camp seem to think that there can never have too many abortions and see even sensible proposals as some sort of conspiracy against business as usual for the abortion industry."
RU-486 is legal in more than 30 countries and was this year added to the World Health Organization's list of "essential medicines."
Last July the manufacturer reported the deaths of five women in North America after taking the pill. Danco Laboratories said that "no causal relationship" had been established between the deaths and use of the drugs.
In November it was reported that the FDA had launched a probe into the safety of RU-486 after discovering that four women who had died after using it suffered from the same sepsis-causing bacterial infection.
See related story:
Distress Caused by Abortion Can Linger for Years, Study Says
Doctor Claims RU-486 Can Cause Lethal Septic Shock (Aug. 04, 2005)
FDA Issues Health Warning After Reports of Abortion Pill Deaths (Jul. 20, 3005)
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