ABORTION: by Richard EganNews Weekly
Late-term abortion in Australia
, December 18, 2004
Medicare's funding of 73,000 annual abortions prompted Health Minister Tony Abbott to express publicly his dismay at presiding over such a system earlier this year in March.
Since then, and particularly since the return of the Howard Government to a fourth term of office, there has been an escalating debate on abortion among Federal MPs and other commentators.
As well as Mr Abbott, a number of Coalition MPs have expressed their concern at the high rate of abortion in Australia, continued Medicare funding of abortion and particularly the performing of late-term abortions.
Those who have spoken out include Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson; Minister for Veterans' Affairs De-Anne Kelly; Special Minister for State Eric Abetz; Parliamentary Secretary for Health, Christopher Pyne; backbencher Alan Cadman; newly elected MP, Stuart Henry and Senator-elect Barnaby Joyce.
Some of the recent debate on abortion has focussed on late-term abortion, with even representatives of the Women's Electoral Lobby expressing briefly the view that it was time for a new debate on this issue. In this context it is useful to examine some recently published data on late-term abortion in some Australian states.
When abortion was legalised in Western Australia in May 1998, the amendments to the Health Act 1911 provided that:
If at least 20 weeks of the woman's pregnancy have been completed when the abortion is performed, the performance of the abortion is not justified unless:
(a) Two medical practitioners who are members of a panel of at least six medical practitioners, appointed by the Minister for the purposes of this section, have agreed that the mother, or the unborn child, has a severe medical condition that, in the clinical judgment of those two medical practitioners, justifies the procedure; and
(b) the abortion is performed in a facility approved by the Minister for the purposes of this section.
King Edward Memorial Hospital is the only facility which has been approved under this provision.
All abortions approved by the panel were for "a severe medical condition" in the child. These "severe conditions" that the panel believe warrant the killing of the child include Down Syndrome and spina bifida.
The panel did refuse 11 applications for approval of post-20 week abortions. These included seven for "psychosocial reasons" and four for minor or correctable disabilities.
Given that the law explicitly provides for post-20 week abortion on the grounds that the mother has a "severe medical condition ... that in the clinical judgement of those medical practitioners justifies the procedure", it is revealing that there was not even a single application, let alone an approval, for a post-20 week abortion on these grounds. This indicates that, in approximately 145,000 pregnancies, there has not been a single case where the pregnancy, post-20 weeks, has proved a severe threat to the mother's health.
In South Australia, there were 377 late-term (post-20 weeks) abortions performed from 1998 to 2002. Of these 171 were for foetal abnormalities, 10 for a medical problem with the mother, and 196 (52 per cent) on "mental health" grounds. The "mental health" ground, provided for in South Australia's abortion law, which dates from 1969, is generally accepted to cover any psychosocial reason that is to allow effectively for abortion on request.
Other states in Australia do not require the notification of abortions, so there are no comprehensive statistics on late-term abortions.
In Melbourne in 2000, a 32-week-old baby girl was aborted after her mother threatened to kill herself because her baby may have been a dwarf. Hospital notes indicated: "On delivery the baby doesn't look small."Partial birth abortion
Dr David Grundmann, medical director for Planned Parenthood of Australia, has written a paper in which he explicitly states that he uses the partial-birth abortion procedure (he calls it "dilatation and extraction") as his "method of choice" for abortions done after 20 weeks, and that he performs such abortions for a broad variety of social reasons. ["Abortion After Twenty Weeks in Clinical Practice: Practical, Ethical and Legal Issues"]
Items covering abortions were added to the Medicare schedule from April 10, 1974, without any public announcement or parliamentary debate or vote.
The Prime Minister, John Howard, has made it clear that there will be no Government-sponsored change at a federal level to current arrangements.
However he has also stated, "It is always open, if somebody wishes to on an issue like this, to bring forward a Private Member's Bill and the Liberal Party for its part, and I'm sure also the National Party, would allow all of its members a free or open vote as we have in the past."
It is timely for all those concerned about abortion, including later-term abortion, and the Federal Government's role in funding it with taxpayers' money through Medicare, to make their views known to the Prime Minister and their own local member of Federal Parliament.
- Extracted from a longer paper by Richard Egan.