In search of a new abortion debate

11.11.2004 | Andrew Cameron and Tracy Gordon | Briefing 032  



People who have strong views shouldn't feel as if they can't express them, but they ought to be expressed within the framework of understanding and concern and care for what is right for mothers and children and society as a whole. [Peter Costello]

Abortion should be a decision of the woman and her medical practitioner. It's not something that governments should butt into. [Women's Electoral Lobby spokeswoman Eva Cox]

Above all, the decision to have a child should be a matter for private consideration, not something determined by the state or those who believe they have a divine right to limit a woman's right to self-determination. [Cyndi Tebbel]

To tell the truth, I don't even think about it. It doesn't enter my mind. You can't regret something that you didn't want in the first place. I see children and I think they are cute and sweet and lovely and all those things but, and this can sound a bit simple, but they are almost like a piece of art, nice to look at but I don't want them in my house just yet. [‘Tracey’, who has no regrets about having an abortion 12 months ago]

This country has a bad conscience about abortion. You can tell this by the frantic attempts to make us shut the hell up about it. [Andrew Bolt]

The recent renewal of debate about abortion in Australia is to be welcomed. However, there may be much more that needs to be said. This briefing attempts to observe what is being said in the current debate; what opponents of abortion might minimally say in response to the current debate; and more ambitiously, what might be said in an attempt to change the terms of the debate.

What is being said. A few dominant themes, for and against abortion, emerge from recent press about it:

In all this, there seems to be a refusal to discuss more fundamental moral questions. Disputes about numbers, and comments about state rights, privacy or men all refuse to consider whether our current high abortion rate is problematic. Conversely, calls for law reform or funding reform too quickly ‘cut to the chase’, and often fail to win hearts and minds about how good it is to welcome children into our community, and why the high abortion rate is so bad.

A minimum response from the opponents of abortion, corresponding to the bullet points above, might go as follows:

Changing the terms of debate. However, the responses outlined above are not really adequate to protect the lives of the unborn.

For example, it was interesting to see older feminists cautiously agreeing that late-term abortions may indeed be problematic, with some even agreeing that the abortion rate is too high. It is probable that for some older feminists, it was never their intention to see such high rates of abortion (just as the original plaintiff in the U.S. Roe vs. Wade case has more recently opposed U.S. ‘abortion culture’). But when conservatives then question Medicare funding of abortion, or ponder changes to abortion law, these same feminists are driven into a corner: they will not be seen to ally with conservatives against such hard-won feminist initiatives. The debate is polarised, and any opportunities for a constructive consensus is lost.

The same concern applies to initiatives to tighten abortion law so as to prevent late-term abortion. While symbolically important, such a move expresses the politics of polarisation, and in the end will probably only save a relatively small number of babies. (Indeed, it would probably prove difficult actually to convict anyone.) Of course, such law reform should not be opposed; but the point is that much more can be done, and in less provocative ways.

A more interesting response, which is politically unloseable and which will save far more babies, might look something like this:

Although we oppose abortion, we recognise that simply tightening the law, or restricting funding for abortion, is not an adequate response. Rather, we seek to understand what causes so many women to abort so many babies, and we seek for a society where women can afford to bond joyfully to the children they carry within. To this end, we might propose policies and initiatives along these lines:

It is interesting to note that in the U.S., abortion rates dropped under Clinton (‘pro-choice’) and rose under Bush (‘pro-life’). Something about the Clinton administration made it possible for women to have children, and one guess is that the administration's welfare policies made it possible for young women to work and to keep their children. Other policy implications might arise from a closer study of this example.

We seek for a society where our love for children can extend even to the womb.

Sources/Further Reading:

Andrew Bolt, “We kill babies,” Herald Sun 10 November 2004.

Amy Butler, “Real lives behind the rhetoric,” Southern Cross August 2003.

Dr Glen Harold Stassen, “Pro Life? Look at the fruits,” Sojourners 13 October 1004. Online:

Patricia Karvelas and Cath Hart, “Age emerges as abortion factor,” The Australian, 10 Nov 2004.

David Uren and Cath Hart, “No abortion mandate,” The Australian, November 08, 2004.

“Abortion a state issue: Costello,” The Age, November 8, 2004. Online:

Mark Metherell and Ruth Pollard, “Abbott silent on plans for abortions,” Sydney Morning Herald, November 2, 200.4 Online:

Michelle Grattan and David Wroe, “Abortion out of control, says minister,” The Age, November 2, 2004. Online:

Amanda Dunn, “Late terminations a minority, but rising,” The Age, November 2, 2004.Online:

Emma-Kate Symons, “New fight for the unborn,” The Australian, 02 Nov 2004.

Cyndi Tebbel, “Abortion a private decision,” Sydney Morning Herald, November 8, 2004. Online:


Tagged: abortion

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