Pregnancy Counseling Plan Raises Questions About Abortion Bias

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - Buoyed by their success in lifting an effective ban on the RU486 abortion pill, some Australian lawmakers are now hoping to block an initiative by the country's pro-life health minister. He wants to increase spending on counseling for pregnant women who are considering abortion.

Critics of Health Minister Tony Abbott say he is once again trying to promote his pro-life views, this time by seeking cabinet approval for new government subsidies for pregnancy counseling services.

The critics are especially concerned that church-affiliated groups are expected to apply for some of the funding.

While the critics worry that the move will benefit the pro-life cause, pro-lifers say the argument is being twisted - that until now, pregnant women frequently have been counseled by people with ties to abortion providers. As such, their impartiality is suspect.

Abbott, who says he's committed to reducing the high number of abortions in Australia, sought to allay the criticism by saying a proposed telephone hotline and face-to-face counseling service for women facing unplanned pregnancies would not entail "ramming religion down anyone's throat."

He said counselors would be expected to refer callers to alternative counseling if that was preferred.

"One of the criteria on which anyone will be selected to provide telephone counseling is the ability to refer people to other services provided by other people if someone rings in and says, 'I'd rather be counseled by someone of a different philosophical persuasion.' "

Abbott also defended church-affiliated groups, saying the services they delivered were characterized by both professionalism and compassion.

But the Catholic health minister faces strong opposition from women lawmakers who last week succeeded in passing a bill that removed Abbott's authority to approve or deny access to RU486.

The controversial drug will now be regulated by a bureaucratic pharmaceutical agency instead, and advocates of the move predict it will make it much more easily available.

They have now turned their attention to Abbott's pregnancy counseling initiative.

Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja of the left-wing Democrats worried that the plan would benefit "anti-choice groups" while Senator Kerry Nettle of the Greens said Abbott appeared to be trying once again "to push his anti-abortion views onto Australian women."

Nettle said counseling services favored by Abbott practiced "coercion not counseling."

"It seems Tony Abbott would prefer to lecture women rather than ensure they have access to comprehensive reproductive health services."

Nettle says some pregnancy counseling centers pretend to be providing unbiased advice but are actually promoting a pro-life view.

Last year, she wrote to an Australian consumer watchdog asking it to investigate whether pregnancy counseling centers were telling women with unplanned pregnancies about all available options.

'Abortion risks minimized'

But those on the other side of the issue see that stance as hypocritical, saying much of what passes for impartial advice from family planning associations and similar facilities in fact promotes abortion.

The author of a book on post-abortion grief said Tuesday that the many women who contacted her during her research "found abortion clinic and family planning counselors were masquerading as independent and unbiased, when they weren't."

Commenting on the flak Abbott was taking for his counseling initiative, Melinda Tankard Reist said "for too long now, abortion groups have controlled the [counseling] market."

"They don't want anyone else encroaching on their territory."

Tankard Reist, who is also a director of Women's Forum Australia, said a number of family planning directors in Australia were prominent abortion activists, and some had worked in abortion clinics.

"Rather than balanced, non-directive counseling and information, women are given a spiel minimizing the risks of abortion."

Prime Minister John Howard is expected to support Abbott's initiative.

Last week, after passage of the RU486 bill which he opposed, Howard said he believed more could be done to provide women "with counseling and support in relation to alternatives to terminations."

"I believe very strongly that more should be done, and I will be bringing that view in the appropriate places very strongly in the weeks and months ahead," he said.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow