Minister Triggers Debate by Calling Abortion 'National Tragedy'

Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:04pm EDT
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Pacific Rim Bureau ( - An Australian cabinet minister has sparked a debate by calling the country's abortion rate a "national tragedy" and asking why youngsters are discouraged from smoking or driving too fast - but not from having sex.

In a political environment where decisions on ethical issues are generally left to individual lawmakers' consciences, politicians from the ruling coalition and official opposition are having their say.

Women's' groups and Christian organizations have also waded in with criticism or praise.

Addressed a rowdy student gathering in South Australia, federal Health Minister Tony Abbott said abortion was often an "easy way out."

"Even those who think that abortion is a woman's right should be troubled by the fact that 100,000 Australian women choose to destroy their unborn babies every year," he said. The country has a population of 19 million.

Abbott, a Roman Catholic, had been asked to speak at the University of Adelaide on the ethical role of a Christian politician.

Braving hecklers and chants of "Get your morals off our bodies," Abbott told his audience too little consideration was given to "avoiding the situation where difficult choices might arise."

"Our society has rightly terrified primary school children about the horrors of smoking, but seems to take it for granted that adolescents will have sex despite the grim social consequences of teenage single parenthood," he said.

"If half the effort were put into discouraging teenage promiscuity as goes into preventing teenage speeding, there might be fewer abortions, fewer traumatized young women and fewer dysfunctional families."

Abbott's comments caused a stir, and drew a demand from the Women's Electoral Lobby, an independent political organization, that he withdraw them.

"The minister seems to be unduly influenced by his own Catholicism," lobby spokeswoman Sarah Maddison was quoted as saying. "Suggesting that teenagers should abstain from sex as a means of reducing the abortion rate is absurd and outdated policy."

Breakdowns of abortion statistics in Australia are not definitive, as only one of Australia's six states and two territories, South Australia, legally requires abortion figures to be recorded.

According to state figures for 2002, 56 percent of known teenage pregnancies ended in abortion that year, compared with 23 percent of known pregnancies for all ages.

In 2002, the abortion rate for under-19s was 24.5 in every 1,000. Although that age group does not have the highest rate (the rate for 20-24 year olds is 31.2) the teenage rate in South Australia has exceeded 20 every year since 1993.

That makes Australia's teenage abortion rate among the highest in the developed world.


Abbott is a member of Prime Minister John Howard's conservative Liberal Party, which does not take a party position on abortion.

A senior Liberal cabinet minister, Treasurer Tim Costello, warned against making abortion an "incendiary" issue during an election year.

Costello, who is widely regarded as a future party leader once Howard retires, said while he respected Abbott's stand, it was a personal one and not a statement on behalf of the government.

Howard himself confirmed that there were no plans to change government policy on federal funding for abortions.

But he defended Abbott's right to express his "strongly-held personal view," and said the call by the Women's Electoral Lobby for the minister to withdraw his remarks was "a pretty Stalinist response."

Meanwhile Labor leader Mark Latham, who hopes to unseat Howard in elections due late this year, declared himself to be "pro-choice," and said Abbott was on a "moral high horse."

Several women's, family planning and activist groups said that if Abbott was serious about wanting to reduce the teenage abortion rate, he should boost funding for comprehensive sex education.

But that view was challenged Thursday by a Christian ethics group, Salt Shakers, which pointed to a recent study in Britain on the effectiveness of sex education programs.

A report by the Family Education Trust think tank, released this week, found that explicit sex education information provided to British school children merely encouraged them to have sex.

It said the teenage pregnancies had risen fastest in those areas of Britain where the government had instituted targeted sex education programs.

Salt Shakers director Peter Stokes said in a letter to Abbott that it was time a federal approach was taken to abstinence-based" sex-education.

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