Abortion remains a crime in Queensland and NSW in Australia. Queensland Parliament has just decided against decriminalising abortion. However, laws are obsolete and unclear, dating back over 100 years. Around 100,000 abortions are performed around Australia every year. In practice, early abortion is available on demand.
Abortion should be decriminalised. Early abortion should be freely and easily available on request. Late abortion should be freely and easily available at least for those who have a valid justification: significant fetal abnormality, threat to woman’s health or serious social reason, for example child pregnancy or rape. Family planning, including safe, free and open abortion services, is an essential part of a civilized society.
Failure to regulate abortion properly results in women being denied safe, effective abortion services, affecting their mental health and social welfare, as well as those of their family and society. It is stigmatising to women and health professionals to allow abortion to occur, while retaining it as a criminal offence. It is also moral hypocrisy.
With Lach de Crespigny, Dominic Wilkinson, Tom Douglas and Mark Textor, we conducted a survey which showed the majority of Australians believed early abortion (61%) should be fully decriminalised. Only 12% believed it should be unlawful. [deCrespigny, L., Wilkinson, D., Douglas, T., Textor, M., and Savulescu, J. (2010) ‘Australian attitudes to early and late abortion’. The Medical Journal of Australia Vol: 193(1) pp 9 – 12]
Simple yes/no polls may give a misleading picture of public opinion. Previous surveys permit only a limited view of community sentiment.
87% say abortion should be lawful in the first trimester: 61% unconditionally and 26% depending on the circumstances.
There is community support for abortion and late-abortion being a woman’s choice. A majority of Australians support women’s access to lawful termination after 24 weeks when there is good reason.
Support for lawful access to termination is higher when there are maternal or fetal complications than when there are personal reasons.
There is little support for professional sanctions against doctors for providing terminations
Australians who nominate a religious affiliation are only slightly less likely to oppose sanctions than those who say they have no religion.
There are overwhelmingly strong ethical arguments for making early abortion, freely and easily available, paid for by Medicare. It is safest, it allows women the possibility of family planning and it is consistent with the practices occurring in Australia and attitudes of a majority of Australians.
Queensland and NSW in Australia should repeal their antiquated abortion laws and make abortion available on demand.
Our survey also suggested politicians would not lose votes by taking a liberal stand on abortion.
2% abortions are late, occurring after 24 weeks, usually because of a delay in medical diagnosis. Most Australians are against professional sanctions being imposed on doctors who perform such abortions. Nearly half of Australians believe they should be lawful when performed for a valid reason. And most were against professional sanctions in a wide variety of circumstances.
Ethically, there is little difference between early and late abortion. After 24 weeks the fetus becomes capable of living outside the mother with intensive care and becomes minimally conscious. But neither of these developments has real ethical significance for abortion. More restrictive public attitudes to late abortion are not grounded on good ethical arguments but rather gut responses, current social norms and traditional dominant Christian religious values imposed during upbringing.
If ethics and law are not to depart too far from current public attitude, we should embrace decriminalisation of late abortion for valid justification. Virtually every woman who chooses to have a late abortion does so for good reason. What is essential is that we remove the legal, professional, social and economic barriers to abortion for those women who have valid reason to obtain one. It is time to take a more ethical approach to abortion.
Source: University of Oxford