Religious Leaders, Conservatives Revive Pro-Life Agenda in Australia

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - In an unprecedented move, representatives of all major religions in Australia have come together in a bid to reduce the number of abortions carried out each year.

Joined by lawmakers from a range of political parties at a meeting in Sydney on Monday night, the loose-knit coalition won the backing of the country's federal health minister, Tony Abbott - a committed Catholic who also has gone public with his concerns about abortion.

The gathering included bishops from Australia's two largest religious denominations, the Catholic and Anglican churches, members of various Protestant churches as well as representatives of the Greek Orthodox, Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh faiths.

Participants called for measures to restrict late-term abortions and argued for mandatory counseling for women wanting an abortion. A fund should be created to research the ways in which abortions affect women physically and psychologically.

Other steps discussed included demands that state governments compile and make available accurate statistics on abortion, something not currently done in all but one of Australia's six states and two territories.

Participants wanted to see alternatives offered to support women who fell pregnant unexpectedly, as well as improved education programs on pregnancy and abortion.

Abortion has been off the main Australian political agenda for many years, and the large political parties generally refrain from taking a party line on the matter, instead allowing their members a conscience vote as with other ethical-moral issues.

Momentum has been building since before last year's election, when Christian groups began more assertive in pushing moral issues onto the political agenda. Although the main thrust at the time was opposition to same-sex "marriage," abortion was never far from the surface as an issue many Christians wanted to debate.

Prime Minister John Howard was re-elected in October but, despite his own conservative views on abortion, ruled out any government-sponsored measure to amend existing laws.

Nonetheless, several members of his government, including Abbott and parliamentary secretary Chris Pyne, were outspoken in their opposition to late-term abortions in particular, sparking a row with lawmaker colleagues who wanted the subject off the table.

A pro-life senator in the ruling coalition, Ron Boswell, on Monday tabled a series of questions in parliament designed to compel the government to release information about abortions.

Boswell said it was time for greater transparency on the human and financial costs of abortion.

"Abortion is a serious issue, whatever your ethical position, and authoritative information is absolutely essential to an informed debate," he said.

"So many different figures have been used and claims made in the recent public debate on abortion that I've asked the minister for the latest data, so we can be sure of the basic facts."

Among 16 questions put to the government, Boswell asked about research into concerns about links between abortions and breast cancer, and between abortions and mental illness.

He also raised the question of whether a free ultrasound scan, enabling a mother to see the baby in her womb, should be included in counseling of women seeking to have an abortion.

Between 70,000 and 100,000 abortions are carried out each year in Australia, a country of just over 20 million people.

One in five pregnancies are believed to end in abortion, but figures aren't accurate because most states don't keep accurate records.

In the one state that does, South Australia, more than 97 percent of abortions in a typical recent year were approved for reasons of the mother's mental well-being. Pro-lifers argue that because mental well-being term is such a loose term, abortion is effectively being provided "on demand."

(The other 2.4 percent of abortions in the state were requested for reasons of specified medical condition, fetal abnormality, rape or incest.)

Abbott's cabinet portfolio places him at the center of the debate because his department oversees the government's Medicare program, which funds a large proportion of abortions.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow