As Prime Minister John Howard put it: “You can’t have a situation where every time somebody dares to express a view, they’re jumped upon from a great height and it’s said the issue is back on the agenda.”

He’s right. The country needs to take a few deep breaths, and a long view on abortion politics.

We all know there is a strident coterie of conservative, misogynist men in the inner circle of Government who are not only completely opposed to women having a right to choose abortion at any stage of pregnancy, but determined to do something about it.

What this means is that over the next few years we are going to be hearing a lot from this powerful posse about female irresponsibility when it comes to contraception. We’ll be getting an earful about callous feminist career-women who selfishly choose abortion instead of motherhood, or depressed and regretful “post-abortive” women who demonstrate the folly of society trusting the female of the species to make important decisions about their own futures, and they’ll be heaps about the number of abortions that Australian women have. They’ll be more assertions than you can shake a stick at about the tragedy of “late-term” abortions (a term that will never be defined but will be applied to all terminations done after 12 or 14 weeks) and our ears will be bashed with graphic descriptions of termination techniques used after the first trimester.

It will be implied that abortion causes breast cancer despite the US National Cancer Institute stating unequivocally in 2003 (based on a meta analysis of all existing population-based, clinical and animal studies) that “having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer”. It will be asserted that abortion causes post-traumatic stress, despite Ronald Regan’s Surgeon General, the anti-choice C. Everett Koop, concluding that psychological problems from abortion were “minuscule from a public health perspective”, and a panel of the American Psychological Foundation concluding in 1989 that terminating an unwanted pregnancy posed no hazard to women’s mental health.

Questions will be raised about the safety of Mifepristone (RU 486), a drug unavailable in Australia as a result of past anti-choice activism despite it being used safely for many years by millions of women in at least 19 countries. Assertions will be made about the unfairness of making anti-choice taxpayers subsidize women’s abortions through Medicare (though the entitlement of bike-riders to withdraw their taxes from the building of roads, will not be mentioned).

My point is twofold. First, we’ve got a long, long way to go until the next federal election. From this point until at least then – and maybe longer, given current predictions about time needed for Labour to become competitive again – we can feel confident that anti-choice Coalition forces are going to use their power and influence in any way they can to stir the pot on the abortion issue.

Are we going to jump every time any one of them says, “boo”? Dance like marionettes whenever they tug (the same old) string? How many times can and should we “debate” the same issues, particularly when – despite all the argy-bargy at the tail end of last year – a national public opinion survey done by the ANU showed 81% of Australians agreeing that women should have a right to choose?

Which brings me to my second point. Putting a question on notice (as Boswell has done) is not “reigniting the debate.” Politicians repeating their well-known personal views on the issue (as Beazley has done) is not “re-igniting the debate”. In fact, these contributions – such as they are – are barely newsworthy. If I may quote dictionary.com, a debate is a “discussion involving opposing points”.

But what is the “point” of Boswell asking for precise numbers of terminations, given he’s among the crowd that thinks even one is too many. Isn’t it a foregone conclusion he’ll conclude, no matter what figure he gets, that it’s too high? Thanks to the prolonged discussion last year on the topic, we know what anti-choice MPs think about abortion: they don’t like them, or approve of the women who have them. What we don’t know is what the legislative intent is of the MPs who keep doing whatever it takes to return abortion to the news. As co-conveners of Emily’s List Joan Kirner and Claire Moore put it yesterday, a public debate on this issue run by politicians without any declared legislative change is “at best unnecessary and at worst misleading.”

What are anti-choice MPs plotting to do to women’s freedom to get an abortion? How are their secret plans going to affect the freedom of Australian women and couples to decide for themselves if and when they’ll have children?

Such revelations would not only be newsworthy, they would provide the information for a real debate, and a fair political battle, to begin. Once the doors of all those prayer sessions and secret meetings are flung open, Australian women and families will finally know – instead of having to guess – precisely how their reproductive freedoms are going to come under attack in the next few years. Experts will be able to evaluate and make comment on how women and couples, from city and bush and those of greater and lesser means, would be affected by mooted administrative changes and legislative proposals. The media could ask politicians to state their voting intentions, and Australian women and couples would finally know how they, and those they love, are likely to be affected by the changes proposed.

So let’s stop the pseudo-debate, and let the real one begin.

Publication history

Put an End to Abortion Whispers  Sydney Morning Herald
2005-02-04