Last week, Labor announced a new $9.3 million policy that, among other things, would “progress the decriminalisation of abortion” in New South Wales and South Australia, and require public hospitals to offer free (taxpayer-funded) abortions as part of their Commonwealth funding arrangement.
In other words, a federal Labor government would continue to push liberalised abortion laws – like those we have seen in Victoria, Queensland and most recently New York – throughout the country, and pressure public hospitals to provide abortions in accordance with these laws.
With broad, vague grounds for eligibility and no upper limits, the laws contain no definitive restrictions on abortion, effectively allowing it for any reason, at any stage of pregnancy.
Whether a desired outcome of the laws or not, they do, legally speaking, permit late-term and full-term abortions on healthy mothers with healthy babies, and do not prohibit abortions for discriminatory reasons such as disability or the child’s sex (legitimising, in particular, discrimination against little girls through sex-selective abortion, which research shows is occurring in some migrant communities in Australia).
These are some of the most permissive abortion laws in the world, and their grave risks to women and unborn children cannot be overstated.
Labor’s policy is being promoted as a triumph for women’s “choice” and “health”. Despite what may be the best of intentions, this is unfortunately not the case.
Tanya Plibersek, Labor’s Deputy Leader and Shadow Minister for Women, speaks of abortion as a “very difficult choice” for women, yet there is no evidence in Labor’s new policy of a willingness to give women the “choice” of anything other than abortion.
We know that many women seek abortions because they feel like they have no other choice – because they have been coerced by a partner, because they are overwhelmed by study, career or family pressures, or because they lack the financial or emotional support necessary to raise a child.
The money Labor plans to spend on abortions, would be better spent addressing some of these issues and providing real support to women. Instead of providing free abortions for those who can’t afford them, what if we empowered women with the financial, emotional and other practical support necessary to raise their child?
There are several reasons the policy falls short of genuinely promoting women’s health.
First, as already noted, the reasons women seek abortions are wide and complex and are often underpinned by a sense of having no other choice, due to adverse circumstances, limited resources and existing responsibilities, rather than concerns regarding their health. Abortion does nothing to address these underlying issues.
Second, the policy gives no recognition to the physical and psychological risks abortion poses to women’s health, with Plibersek even comparing it to a “hip replacement” or fixing a “broken bone”.
The reason abortion is such a “difficult decision” for women and why it can be accompanied by immense grief and psychological harm is because it involves ending the life of their child (research shows that women who have abortions are at increased risk of depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviours and substance use disorders). Abortion is not like any other health procedure and to compare it to a hip replacement or mending a broken bone is not only deceptive, it is incredibly insensitive to all women who have made what Plibersek herself calls the “phenomenally difficult decision” to have an abortion.
Third, the decriminalisation laws being progressed under the policy are concerned with legalising abortion without restriction and legitimising abortions for social, non-health related reasons (laws throughout the country already permit abortion to preserve a woman’s health).
While Labor purports to make abortion a “health issue” in these states, it is, in reality, treating it as a non-health issue, by making abortion available without the need for any medical grounds at all.
There are around 80,000 abortions in Australia per year, with one quarter to one-third of women experiencing an abortion. Tanya Plibersek believes “women deserve better” when it comes to abortion. So do we.
Instead of simply providing women with the so-called “choice” of abortion on demand, women deserve real support through pregnancy and motherhood, and real, non-harmful solutions to the significant underlying issues that often make them believe abortion is their only choice.
This includes progressing real alternatives for women facing unplanned pregnancies, and addressing issues of domestic violence, access and affordability of child care, flexible workplace and study arrangements and access to pregnancy and counselling support.
In 2019, we can do better for women – and their children – than abortion.