Full Disclosure Necessary in Abortion Law

Many people think that the State government’s commitment to the decriminalisation of abortion guarantees a good outcome for women, no matter what model ultimately makes it into law.

They are wrong. Legal advice suggests that some models for reforming the law could reduce women’s freedom to choose, and their access to quality services.

In late March this year, the Victorian Law Reform Commission will offer the Brumby government a number of models for reforming the current law on abortion. A report just handed down in the UK into scientific d evelopments relevant to abortion law has a number of lessons for us as we embark on a reform agenda.

The first can be found in the fact that such a report was necessary at all. It was because UK law uses fetal viability as the dividing line between pregnancies women are allowed to terminate without too much interference and red-tape, and those they must beg and plead – or be at death’s door – to obtain.

But the age at which fetuses are viable is a moveable feast. Data from different countries, even different medical centres in the same state, reveal a range of time periods in which infants survive pre-term birth, without and without impairment. Using viability to define the rules for lawful abortion means that every time there is a blip in this data, or someone develops a new machine that goes ping, pro-life forces have reason to demand the law be reviewed. The mess and fuss surrounding the British report offers a timely reminder to Victorian politicians that if they don’t want zealous constituents knocking on their law every few years demanding the issue be revisisted, the foundations of any dividing line they choose – if one must be chosen at all – must have firm foundations.

But the main focus of the Committee’s report was disclosure, with the never-before-targeted object of their demands the inquiry’s own witnesses.

At Australian government hearings – at least those I’ve attended – what is learned in the hearing room about the links and affiliations of “expert” witnesses stays in the hearing room. In the final report, only the credentials that those giving evidence want revealed are disclosed to the public.

But the UK Committee, concerned that some of the submissions they had received were from doctors opining on evidence in areas outside their expertise, demanded full disclosure of relevant interests, including previous publication of strong views on abortion, or membership of organizations campaigning on the issue. Such disclosures, it noted, were not only in line with its own recommendations on evidence-based policy making but in keeping with “accepted practice in the scientific community”.

All hell broke loose. Some pro-lifers did come clean (Australia’s own John Fleming, who in Australian debates on abortion tends to describe himself as Dr Fleming from the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, added that he was a Catholic Priest and President of Campion College, linked with Christendom College, whose mission is to make Christ’s teachings the law of the land). But others simply refused, claiming to fear that the truth would see their views discounted.

Transparency issues were central to the Committee’s concerns at other points, too. The Committee stressed the obligation of doctor’s claiming to conscientiously object to abortion to alert patients to this fact. It also argued for a government obligation to protect women from being misled by pro-life counselling agencies either by requiring such agencies to present women with health information approved by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, or to make clear in their advertising that they did not support referral for abortion. In Australia, a similar outcome could be achieved if Federal Labor supported the cross-party Pregnancy Counselling (Truth in Advertising) Bill 2006, which prohibits pregnancy counselling agencies from engaging in deceptive and misleading advertising.

At the heart of concerns about transparency are those about autonomy, the Greek roots of which mean self-rule. To rule our lives we need full and accurate information on which to base our decisions. Full disclosure may reveal moral or fiscal conflicts of interest change our decisions about how much weight to give to the opinions of those claiming to know. If we are ignorant of any of the elevant facts about those seeking to influence us, the integrity of our decisions is undermined and the grip on our lives weakened. Because it may have been if we had known the whole truth about the person whose words swayed us, we might not have given them so much weight – and so chosen differently – after all.

The Victorian government would be wise to attend to the evidence-based findings of the Science and Technology Committee with regard to viability and transparency when it reforms our law later this year. And all governments must follow the UK lead and demand both advertisers and witnesses are fully frank about who they are and where they come from.

If they do, stable, evidence-based laws and policy that treat women as fully human shall be our reward.

Publication history

Full Disclosure Necessary in Abortion Law  The Age