Having found a lost a “son”, the Minister should be less critical of others

The message from Health Minister Tony Abbott remains unequivocal: Kathleen Donnelly, the mother of his wrongly assumed son, Daniel O’Connor, is a “nice” girl.

As the latest twist in the ongoing adoption reunion story broke on Monday night, Abbott made his continuing fondness for his old girlfriend clear, despite his newfound awareness that she was sexually involved with other men during the years he believed they were having an exclusive affair.

While reporters repeatedly invited him to dump on Donnelly, Abbott refused to pass judgement about what he described as “hot-blooded young people”.

“We were all pretty wild back then so I am not in the business of making critical judgements. She is a great girl and this doesn’t change any of that”.

Indeed, in his interviews with the press last month, Abbott has suggested that his “callow” decision to go overseas during Donnelly’s pregnancy must also be understood in the context of his youthful immaturity. Presumably, a similar explanation accounts for the couple’s failure to use contraception throughout their years of intimate involvement.

Such sentiments should be music to the ears of the vast majority of Australians who support a woman’s right to choose. They imply that having recently tried to give parents access to their teenager’s medical records in order to stop their “open-slather sexual activity”, and to restrict the access of women and couples to safe and affordable abortion, Tony Abbott has seen the error of his ways.

Having refused to judge or condemn Donnelly for past mistakes, or behaviour inconsistent with his moral values, is Abbott finally prepared to recognise the arrogance of his past judgement of other woman and couples who – like he and Donnelly – had sex and unintentionally wound up pregnant? To realise that like he and Donnelly, we are all nice people doing our best to live what we see as moral lives but at times get waylaid by cloudy judgement, immaturity or sheer bad luck? That everyone deserves to have their behaviour and decisions interpreted in the context of their limits, and the framework of their lives?

If Donnelly can violate Abbott’s code of sexual morality but still be judged a nice girl, then why not the rest of us? If the definition of a nice girl (and boy, for that matter) is a person who does their best to live well in a complex world where things don’t always go to plan, don’t we all qualify?

What remains unclear is whether Abbott’s complex personal situation will lead him to question his rigid and long-held views of female sexuality and reproductive obligation. Remember, he comes from a family that Donnelly says froze her out the moment they discovered she was pregnant. Will Tony Abbott’s intimate engagement with the real world, with all its shades of grey, collapse the nice girl/slut distinction that has driven his agenda on sexuality and reproduction for so long?

According to psychologist Dr Susie Allanson, a counsellor of 15 years at the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic, the odds are regrettably slim. Over the years Allanson has counselled a number of women who are not just morally opposed to abortion but have actively campaigned against it being safe and legal. Yet, when they have found themselves unhappily pregnant, they decide in favour of abortion.

The problem, says Allanson, is that while such women sympathise with their own situation and feel confident their case justifies an abortion, most refuse to allow their experience translate to compassion for other women facing the same dilemma. Instead, these women prefer to see their experience as unique and so no challenge to their abortion politics or their uncompromising judgement of all aborting women – except themselves, of course – as murderers.

Hypocrisy? You bet. And the worry is that Abbott will fall victim to this most universally despised moral failing, too. That instead of recognising that the personal limits and situational complexity characterising his case precisely mirror the dilemmas others face on the sexual, contraceptive and unplanned pregnancy front, that he’ll insist on seeing them as one-off and one-of-a-kind. That rather than preserve the freedom he and Kathleen had to make their own decisions – even mistakes – and to take responsibility for them, he’ll continue to do all in his power to deny those caught in a similar bind the freedom to choose with dignity, according to their own needs and values.

According to Dr Allanson, imposing one’s rigid views on others relieves the stress of those who find the contemporary world chaotic. “Must-abating about others,” says Allanson, “gives such people a sense of control”.

Tony Abbott has had control of his sexual and reproductive world and now, as Health Minister in a government about to take control of both houses of parliament, he is about to assume unprecedented control of ours. The question is whether he will finally allow the evidence of his own experience to collapse his rigid views about how others should behave when it comes to sex, contraception and decisions about unplanned pregnancies. Or will his rigid views about nice girls and sluts live to see – and to guide the nation’s health policy – another day?