Australian Lawmakers Gear Up For Key Abortion Battle

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The makings of an epic ethical battle are underway in Australia's smallest state, where rival lawmakers are proposing radically different legislation -- either making abortion legal right up to birth, or introducing measures to outlaw coercion and deny abortionists any counseling role.

Wayne Berry, the Labor Party speaker of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) legislative assembly, wants all laws relating to abortion repealed, favoring what his pro-life critics have called a "free-market approach to abortion."

If successful, his bill would allow abortion at all times and under all circumstances; remove the current legal requirement to provide women with information on abortion, possible health risks and alternatives to abortion, prior to them going ahead; do away with a mandatory 72-hour "cooling off" period aimed at preventing rushed decisions; and even remove a requirement to keep statistics on abortion.

In the opposing corner is Vicki Dunne, a Liberal Party lawmaker, who this week introduced legislation that would have husbands, partners, parents or doctors jailed for up to 10 years if convicted of forcing a woman into an abortion.

Dunne's legislation would also prevent anyone involved in carrying out abortions -- abortionists or associated staff -- from giving counseling to pregnant women considering their options.

An existing clause providing for 10 years' imprisonment for doctors who perform illegal abortions would be retained, although Dunne's bill would do away with a potential 10-year prison term for women who have illegal abortions, replacing it with a token, one-month jail term.

Money angle

Introducing her bill in the assembly, Dunne spoke of the commercial aspect of abortion, noting that an abortion clinic's "financial success -- which can be considerable -- depends on providing [abortions] to as many patients as possible."

Clinics are supposed to offer women advice about their options, but, Dunne noted, if a woman subsequently decided to have her baby or put it up for adoption, the clinic would not even get a counseling fee.

"Seeking independent advice from an abortion clinic on whether it would be a good idea to have the baby is like asking a car dealer whether you'd be better off with a bicycle," she said.

"I want to ensure that a woman contemplating an abortion is not pressured to have an abortion by someone who stands to make money out of the process."


Family members and partners, too, can pressure women who were "highly vulnerable to emotional blackmail" into making decisions they later regret.

"The experience of post-abortion grief counselors is that their caseloads have a high proportion of women who felt that they were forced to have an abortion [by partners, relatives or doctors]," Dunne said.

"The abortion clinic is not the only party who stands to gain if the woman chooses an abortion."

Berry's proposed legislation, meanwhile, has drawn strong reaction from pro-lifers. Feminists for Life held a protest outside the legislature Wednesday, and the ACT Right to Life group has also been campaigning hard against Berry's Bill.

ACT Right to Life president Mary Joseph earlier called it a "a radical social experiment" that would put ACT out of step with every other state in Australia.

"The world Wayne Berry foreshadows in his legislation is one where unborn children can be aborted up to the moment of birth without any restriction," while statistics are not kept, hiding the "social problem" from the community.

In the legislature, Berry attacked his rival's proposals.

"Women should have all the protection that goes with any other medical procedure, without the tub-thumping misinformation that comes from Mrs Dunne and her Right to Life supporters," he said. "They should be left in peace like anyone else who has had a medical procedure."

Dunne contested the view that abortion is a "medical procedure" at all.

"Medicine is concerned with the 'diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease'," she said, citing a standard dictionary definition.

"Pregnancy, as the mothers among us in particular are often assured, is not a disease. Nor is there any disease for which abortion is a cure."

Dunne's coercion proposals have raised concerns about possible abuse. One writer to the Canberra Times daily said things could "get out of hand."

In a society where someone could be sued for calling a work colleague "sweetheart," any advice or opinion regarding abortion by concerned parents, friends or partners could be construed as coercion and lead to a prison term, wrote Ruth Warner.

But in another letter to the paper, Canadian pro-life campaigner Tina Arruda praised the proposed legislation, saying many women were "corralled" into abortion clinics by boyfriends, husbands or parents.

Representing a population of just over 300,000 in a 900-square mile territory incorporating Australia's capital, the ACT legislative assembly has just 17 members, with Labor in a minority government.

Dunne's advisor, Norman Abjorensen, said Thursday that six or possibly all of the Liberals' seven members would support the Dunne proposal.

With the right of a conscience vote, two of Labor's eight members have also voiced support in principle, and two others were "wavering," he said, adding that a majority looked possible.

The rival bills are expected to be debated in August.

In Britain this week, a pro-life group claimed to have obtained secretly-filmed evidence of abortion clinic staff giving misleading or inadequate information to women seeking advice on abortion.

See also:
British Pro-Lifers Claim Video Proof Of Clinic Improprieties (Jun. 6, 2002)
Abortion: Women's Group Fights for 'Real' Right To Choose (Jan. 23, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow