VICTORIA: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Behind Victoria's radical new abortion law
, October 25, 2008
Victoria's new abortion law allows late-term abortion and overrides the consciences of medical staff and pharmacists who have an objection to abortion, writes Peter Westmore.Victoria's Abortion Law Reform Bill - carried by a 48:28 majority in Victoria's Legislative Assembly and by a 23:17 margin in the Legislative Council - is the most radical abortion bill yet carried in Australia.
The bill faced widespread public opposition, but was pushed through with the strong support of a majority of Labor MPs, particularly those associated with the radical feminist Emily's List, and the Greens. However, a number of Liberal and National Party MPs also supported the bill.Emily's List
Emily's List was set up in Australia in 1996 by the former Victorian Premier, Joan Kirner, a member of the Socialist Left faction in the ALP.
At the time, Ms Kirner described Emily's List as "a national network of feminist women" committed to supporting the election of radical feminists to parliaments, and working for a range of issues on the radical feminist agenda, including abortion law reform and the availability of government-funded childcare for women in paid employment.
She recently described the repeal of Victoria's abortion laws as the culmination of 30 years of campaigning.
The bill repealed the provisions of the Victorian Crimes Act relating to abortion, and permitted any "registered medical practitioner" to conduct abortions, permitted abortions up to 24 weeks' gestation without any limit, and permitted abortions after 24 weeks if approved by two medical practitioners including partial-birth abortions which are effectively infanticide.
In all these respects, the new law goes beyond what has been accepted medical practice, in which abortions were regarded as a surgical procedure to be performed by a qualified surgeon.
It also legalised the supply or administration by pharmacists or registered nurses of abortifacient drugs to women up to 24 weeks pregnant.
Its true scope can be seen by the amendments moved in the upper house, and which were all defeated in the committee stages of debate about the bill. These included:
• Reducing the time during which the approval of two doctors would be necessary for an abortion, from 24 to 12 or 14 weeks.
• Restricting abortions to public hospitals.
• Providing that, where a second doctor's approval is needed for an abortion, the second doctor "not be employed in the same medical practice or at the same hospital or clinic as the first-mentioned medical practitioner".
• Partial-birth abortions should be illegal.
• Permitting medical practitioners to refrain from participating in an abortion or having to refer a woman to an abortionist if they had a conscientious objection.
• A foetus that is born alive should have all the rights of a child regardless of whether the foetus was born during or after an attempted abortion.
• A medical practitioner who performs an abortion, or who gives a direction to perform an abortion, must ensure that all reasonable steps are taken to ensure that the abortion is conducted without causing pain to the foetus.
• Termination review panels be established to oversee abortions on a woman who is more than 24 weeks pregnant.
• Protection for medical practitioners and nurses who have a conscientious objection to abortion.
As mentioned previously, all these amendments were defeated.
The new Victorian law overrides the consciences of medical staff and pharmacists who have an objection to abortion, and will pose a major challenge for Catholic hospitals, in particular, where abortions are not practised.
The gravity of the threat to Catholic hospitals was referred to by Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne in a pastoral letter issued last September.
In it, Archbishop Hart said that Catholic hospitals and the large number of Victorians they serve are "in a vulnerable position".
He added: "Catholic hospitals will not perform abortions and will not provide referrals for the purpose of abortion. If this provision is passed, it will be an outrageous attack on our service to the community and contrary to Catholic ethical codes.
"It will leave Catholic hospitals and doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion in a position where they will be acting contrary to the law if they act in accordance with their deeply held moral convictions.
"This bill poses a real threat to the continued existence of Catholic hospitals. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to foresee how Catholic hospitals could continue to operate maternity or emergency departments in this state in their current form.
"This is a significant issue for the community at large having regard to the fact that Catholic hospitals account for approximately one-third of all births and are seen by many as their hospitals of choice."Mockery
In a personal letter to the upper house MPs, Archbishop Hart raised other problems. "The bill," he said, "makes a mockery of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and the Equal Opportunity Act. This is clearly intended to have the effect of requiring Catholic hospitals to permit referrals for abortions."
While most other states now have laws which legalise abortion, there is a strong possibility that the Victorian legislation will provide a model for those states where some restraints remain on the availability of abortion.- Peter Westmore