Abortion & Tony Abbott - It is Black and White

How do we judge what someone might do in the future? Usually it’s a combination of what we know they’ve done in the past, our judgement of their character and how much we trust assurances about what they say they’ll do.

I’ve wondered about this recently because not long ago Tony Abbott told women’s website Mamamia that his views on abortion are less than black-and-white.

This claim implied he has been misunderstood on the issue. Some concluded from this that women have nothing to fear from Abbott if he becomes PM.

None of this makes sense to me. Here’s the reason why.

I’m an abortion rights activist and have been up against Tony Abbott in a number of abortion rights campaigns.

I clearly remember the speech Abbott gave to the Adelaide University Democratic Club in 2004 that effectively put a woman’s right (or lack thereof ) to choose abortion back on the political agenda. In it he described the “practice of abortion” as “an objectively grave matter [that] has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience,” and wondered whether it was “really so hard to create a culture where people understand that actions have consequences and take their responsibilities seriously?” (Given he was speaking of abortion, we can assume the “people” in question here are the female sort).

The speech remains on his website to this day titled “Rate of Abortion Highlights Our Moral Failings”.

During the RU486 debate in federal parliament, in which Abbott fought tooth and nail to hold on to his ministerial veto over a drug that is on the World Health Organisation’s list of “essential medicines,” Abbott shouted: “Mr Speaker, we have a bizarre double standard in this country where someone who kills a pregnant woman’s baby is guilty of murder, but a woman aborts an unborn baby is simply exercising choice.”

I was in the chamber when the Prime Minister John Howard, Tony Abbott and other opponents of reproductive rights became aware they would lose the conscience vote on the issue.

They began using their speeches to alert their supporters in the gallery the Howard government’s intention to maintain the shame and stigma surrounding abortion, and to impede women’s capacity to make informed decisions for themselves.

Just two weeks after RU486 was won, the government announced a $51 million suite of aptly named Pregnancy Support Measures designed to reduce the nation’s abortion rate. These – according to the joint press release issued by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health Tony Abbott – included a Medicare item number for pregnancy support counselling by GPs (since axed for lack of use) and a hotline providing counselling that was described as “non-directive” but for which Church agencies could tender, despite the fact that they do not provide accurate information about abortion and will not direct women to safe services, even if a woman asks.

To his credit, the alternative Prime Minister has never squibbed the question of the motivation for his anti-choice views and actions.

They come from his adherence to a highly orthodox version of Catholicism. As he said in his Adelaide Club speech and at a number of different points since, Abbott believes that “Christians in politics” do not have to “sell out their principles in order to survive”. Instead Catholics must work together, he said at a launch of a book of his mentor B.A. Santamaria’s letters, to turn back “the tide of secular humanism”.

I could go on, but this seems enough to demonstrate that Abbott’s views on abortion – and his related political behaviour – are entirely black and white.

Nuance-free, in fact.

Indeed, Abbott has described them this way himself. “When it comes to lobbying local politicians,” he said in a speech, “there seems to be far more interest in the treatment of boatpeople, which is not morally black and white, than in the question of abortion.”

So, how can we make sense of Abbott’s claims that he is misunderstood on the abortion issue? One option is that he has indeed had a sudden and abrupt change of heart on the issue, or has even lost his Catholic faith.

That when it comes to abortion, his views have substantially changed.

The other option is that he was not being truthful when he implied such a change of heart, but was putting this idea forward to cultivate female voters who, not surprisingly, view him with a high degree of suspicion.

Both options cast aspersions on Abbott’s character.

If he has indeed had a volte face on the abortion issue or on his faith, it would up-end everything we’ve come to know about him over many years of public life – first as leader of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy and then for 17 years in parliament.

Say what you like about Abbott, but one of his core strengths is that the electorate sees a unity in what he believes, says and does.

They may not like what he stands for, but they believe he stands for something and feel they know what it is.

This sort of credibility is rolled gold for politicians – Bob Hawke had it, and so did John Howard. In some cases, it can even win over voters who feel compensated enough by the solidity of character and predictability such consistency suggests to overlook disagreements on substantive issues.

If Abbott were to suddenly turn on values he’s held so strongly, so loudly and for so long, it could destroy this electoral asset in a way that may not be redeemable.

If on the other hand he was telling self-serving porky pies this simply adds to the growing view – articulated by Andrew Wilkie in his reporting of Abbott’s bargaining style after the last election – that Abbott will say and do anything to win office, and so the truth of such claims – even those pledged in blood or put in writing – is highly dubious.

Abbott could settle the matter by spelling out – in a published opinion piece in one of the mainstream dailies – the precise nature of his views on abortion.

Such a piece would allow him to reveal the claimed nuances of his position and – importantly – spell out his plans for the protection and enhancement of women’s reproductive rights, including their right to choose abortion – should he win government. (I have been sending him tweets requesting he do just this, but so far with little luck. Feel free to add your voice He’s @TonyAbbottMHR.)

If we can’t get it in writing – and remember Abbott told the 7:30 Report scripted statements from him are the only ones we should trust – we must go with what we know. And what we know is that Abbott has a long history as an extremely devout and obedient Catholic and an outspoken and extremely active anti-choice politician.

In the absence of compelling evidence otherwise – and so far we have none – we must assume Abbott is still a devout Catholic and still holds anti-choice views that he will feel obliged to act on once he becomes PM.

It is vital women consider this, and cast their votes accordingly.

Publication history

Abbott on Abortion: Black & White   The Hoopla