March 4th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: NATIONAL SECURITY: The sum of all our fears - betrayal

AUSTRALIAN EXPORTS: AWB Iraq wheat sales debacle - whose responsibility now?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: RU-486 vote highlights MPs' moral confusion

EDITORIAL: Drugs: can we prevent more 'Bali Nine' trials?

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: March 18 election - personalities not policies

PUBLIC ISSUES: Reflections on the abortion wars

SCHOOLS: Time to close teacher-training schools?

ECONOMICS: UK report calls for halt to supermarket takeovers

TAIWAN: From plastic keyboards to camera phones

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Sordid message of Leunig's cartoon / The RU-486 debate / Religious beliefs

POLITICAL IDEAS: Alasdair MacIntyre and the bugbear of liberalism

Kevin Rudd for PM? (letter)

Senator Joe McCarthy's 'shameful vendettas' (letter)

Health risks with imported food (letter)

Engineers unfairly stereotyped (letter)

CINEMA: Ignorant critics slam Spielberg's latest, 'Munich'


BOOKS: SADDAM'S SECRETS: How an Iraqi General Defied and Survived Saddam Hussein, by Georges Sada

Books promotion page

Reflections on the abortion wars

by Bill Muehlenberg

News Weekly, March 4, 2006
The recent abortion drug debate should teach pro-life activists how, in future, they can better expose their opponents' dishonest tactics, argues Bill Muehlenberg.

The recent debate about the abortion pill RU-486 has resulted in a flurry of claims and counter claims over the abortion issue. It is worth examining several of these in more detail. They reveal a lot of muddled thinking on morality and public policy in general, and the truths about abortion in particular.

Religion and politics

Much has been made of the fact that our Federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, is a Catholic, and as such, he is somehow not able or should not be able, to give comment on this controversial issue. The idea seems to be that the Minister should not be saying anything about the abortion issue because his faith somehow disqualifies him from making such remarks.

But this is patently false for a number of reasons. A religion is a worldview, a way of looking at the world. It is also a worldview that entails a belief in God. To argue that religious beliefs disqualify one from speaking out on abortion would mean that at least 90 per cent of Australians cannot discuss the subject, since at least that percentage of Aussies are theists of some sort. Why should only a minority of secularists or atheists be allowed to discuss this issue?

Moreover, secularism and atheism are also comprehensive worldviews, often entailing a set of beliefs and values. Indeed, the US Supreme Court has ruled that secular humanism is a religion. The truth is, all people have a set of beliefs and values by which they assess the world and the issues of the day. In that sense, everyone might be said to be religious. We all operate from a worldview, be it philosophical naturalism (nature is all there is and there is no more) or secular humanism or atheism or New Age belief, and so on.

All such belief systems can be found in the abortion debate, and none need be cut off from discussion in the public arena.

Finally, as Mr Abbott pointed out to Kerry O'Brien on ABC television's The 7:30 Report (February 9, 2006), the views he holds on abortion are not exclusive to Roman Catholicism. He said: "Well, obviously I do have some views which I have expressed. But my views on abortion are pretty much in sync with the views that have been expressed over the years by such diverse people as the Dalai Lama and Mahatma Gandhi. There's nothing necessarily Catholic about my views on abortion. But in any event, as a minister of the Crown, Kerry, any decision that I make is based on ordinary rational principles of government."

A woman's issue

How many times in the past month or two have we heard the old canard that men have no right to be speaking about this issue, since it is a woman's issue? This is a good way to shut down debate: simply tell men to butt out.

Of course, this claim is true to an extent, given that only women undergo abortions. But it is also false, since roughly half of all abortion victims are males. But more than this, abortion is a human rights issue. To say only women can debate the issue is quite beside the point.

As E.J. Mishan once remarked: "Perhaps the crudest defence of abortion rights, more often thrown out in anger or in the heat of controversy, is the assertion that no man has a right to pronounce on the subject since he does not know what it is like to be a woman, an injunction that might tempt a retort no less impertinent, that a woman has no right to condemn a rapist since she has no idea of what it is like to be a man."

Indeed, this argument assumes the position that people cannot assess a moral issue unless they have experienced it themselves. But that is like saying we cannot condemn slavery unless we have first been slaves, or we cannot condemn arson unless we have first become one of its victims. Does the fact that I am not Jewish mean I cannot speak out on the Holocaust? Whether an issue is right or wrong does not depend on our experience of it.

Truth in advertising

Many people have claimed that the RU-486 debate is not a debate about abortion. Sorry, but it certainly is. As such, many of the old debates have re-emerged. And one of those debates concerns the issue of what actually takes place in an abortion. Pro-lifers have long made use of pictures of aborted babies. And the advances in ultrasound technology make it even clearer what the abortionist is destroying. Of course, the anti-life crowd does not like these pictures to be made available to the general public, and certainly not to the women contemplating abortion.

As but one example, Melbourne's Sunday Age columnist Monica Dux wrote a piece entitled "Bloody tactics blur the truth on RU-486" (12 February). In it she bemoaned the fact that pro-lifer use these pictures. She called these pictures "gratuitous" and their use "manipulative tactics".

But I wonder if she also has a problem with animal-rights activists showing pictures of whales being harpooned or baby seals being clubbed to death? Surely those images are meant to stir the emotions and point out in a very vivid way what is taking place here. I doubt very much that she would call such pictures "gratuitous" and complain about manipulation and the like. But such are the double standards of the secular left.

Moreover, it is interesting that those who delight in showing these pictures of tortured and slaughtered animals rightly condemn the crass profit motive that lies behind these activities. People are getting rich off these killings, which makes it seem an even more heinous activity.

So why does Monica Dux not also celebrate the use of pictures of the tortured, dismembered, and burned bodies of babies who have been killed to line the pockets of abortionists? Or is her outrage only selective?

Surely, with such an important issue, people have a right to know. Informed choice is the first step in proper medical decision-making. Perhaps Ms Dux simply wants women to be kept in the dark about what abortion is really all about. In exactly the same way, the seal-hunters do not want their actual activities splashed before the world in full colour.

As one commentator put it: "It is understandable why the distribution of graphic literature describing and depicting the [abortion] procedure makes pro-choice people uncomfortable. They don't like to see their dirty trade secrets revealed any more than a fur seller wants to find a poster of a trapped, dying animal hanging on his showroom window. Both remind us that someone else suffered tremendous pain and agony so we can have our lifestyles of convenience or comfort."

Our population implosion

One very important issue in this whole debate is the fact that the West is slowly aborting itself out of existence. Many commentators have noted the declining fertility rates and population levels in the West. Liberal MP Danna Vale recently made note of this fact. She said the abortion culture was bringing with it worrying ramifications, including the fact that Muslims would eventually take over in Australia if present trends continue.

But when she did, she was blasted (predictably) by the politically-correct brigade. Even some of her own parliamentary colleagues turned on her. Yet she was simply stating a few simple facts. It is quite true that Australia, along with most of the Western world, is facing a population implosion. Between our very high abortion rates, and our reluctance to have children, the West is heading into a crisis situation.

On the other hand, it is also true that Muslims tend to still have large families, certainly compared to most Westerners. These are basic demographic truths. Of course what conclusions are to be drawn from these facts is something our politicians, opinion-makers, and all of us, must sort out. But this was a case of simply shooting the messenger. The message remains accurate, and we need to discuss whether or not we are happy with these trends.

Religious confusion

Finally, another much-publicised aspect of the debate was the childish statement emblazoned on a T-shirt worn by Greens Senator Kerry Nettle. She showed up at Parliament with the slogan, thinking she was making an important contribution to the debate. The words were: "Mr Abbott, Get your rosaries off my ovaries."

This slogan of course has been around a long time, and it is as misleading as it is silly. Abortion is ultimately a human rights issue, not a religious issue. As Health Minister, Tony Abbott has every right to speak on the topic. It has nothing to do with promoting Catholicism, but everything to do with protecting the unborn and protecting women, many of whom who have both suffered and died from the drug.

But there is more to this episode. On the T-shirt, under this slogan were the words, "YWCA Australia" and its logo and website. Indeed, Ms Nettle claimed that a Christian organisation had given her the T-shirt.

Now, whether or not one is a Catholic, there are some very real problems with the actions of the YWCA. The YWCA of course stands for Young Women's Christian Association. It certainly was founded by committed Christians back in 1855 in London. But it has clearly moved a long way since.

Why should the YWCA think it funny and cute to mock fellow Christians, especially Catholics? And how can it still call itself Christian when it obviously considers one of the most important biblical principles, the sanctity of human life, to be a joke as well?

I would suggest that, in order to be more honest and forthright with the public, in the future it just refer to itself as the YWA. It seems clear that there are very few traces of Christianity left in the organisation. It certainly seems to have jettisoned and renounced its Christian roots.

In sum, there has been a lot of sloppy thinking and commentary to come out on this issue. But if all the intellectual confusion and moral myopia will result in a clarification of the issues, then it may well be a good thing. And moral clarity and intellectual rigour are certainly needed concerning this debate.

  • Bill Muehlenberg is a pro-family activist with degrees in philosophy and theology. He teaches at a number of theological colleges.

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