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Abortion, Tony Abbott and 'feminists'

By Catharine Lumby - posted Monday, 9 August 2004

So the Pope has finally found time to pen a letter on the subject of the insane juggling act so many women are forced to do with family and work. He's sure taken his time. But, hey, the big guy has other things on his plate.

He's got a patriarchal organisation to run. He's got women to refuse to ordain. Then there's contraception to ban and the resulting unwanted pregnancies to force teenage mothers to live with. Oh, and there's paedophile priests to protect.

Feminists are not exactly a holy or homogenous group. We disagree heatedly on many things. But if there's one thing we tend to scrum down on, it's outrage at the effect conservative religious doctrines have had on the daily lives of women and children across the globe.


Which is why it was something of a shock when one of Australia's most prominent right wing Catholics, Tony Abbott, started praising the views of prominent feminists, including Wendy McCarthy, Eva Cox, Kathy Bail, and myself. Even more surprising was the news that this was the first time any of us had seriously considered debating the ethics of abortion.

In The Australian last month, Abbott applauded leading feminists for re-opening the debate on late-term abortion and said: "I'm pleased that some of Australia's leading feminists seem to be having a rethink about the abortion culture. I certainly am very uncomfortable with the abortion culture as it stands".

In a recent speech he also claimed that leading feminists were starting to express concern about the "downstream consequences of sexual freedom" and to question the abortion culture.

If you are new to feminism, here's some conclusions you might draw from Abbott's remarks: Feminists think abortion is a social good. We don't think anyone should discuss it. Medical technology that lets us see inside the womb has forced us to reconsider this hardline view.

If only the ethical relationship between the body of a pregnant woman and her unborn child was so clear. If only so many women didn't have to face the personal hell of deciding whether to let go of their potential offspring or bring a child into the world they don't think they have the personal or social support to care for.

I've grieved with many female friends who've had terminations. Their reasons have been various: tests showing they are carrying a severely handicapped child; an abusive partner and no means of support; and employers who made it clear there are no senior career paths for women with children.


Abortion is not something most women do lightly. And if we ensure that all women get decent sex education, access to contraception, and equal treatment in the workplace, then we know that termination rates will plummet. Scientific research shows us so.

Improving the lives of women is the key thing feminists of all persuasions want to do. Reducing the number of abortions they face is part of that mission. So is ensuring that women and their partners get caring and expert advice when facing decisions about bringing severely disabled children into the world.

The latter is a pressing ethical question at a time when many of us get more medical information than we can handle. If Tony Abbott wants to influence couples to have physically or intellectually comprised babies, he should be demanding that money be poured into supporting families with the most disabled children. Because right now, those families are abandoned in a way that should make us all feel ashamed.

If Tony Abbott really wants to start a campaign to greatly expand Federal Government support for families caring for special needs kids, feminists of all persuasions will be right behind him. I'll be the mascot and I'm happy to put a bra on before we march.

But until men like Tony Abbott are prepared to address the conditions that children are born into, or pregnant women are wrenched out of, those of us who care about them will see his views on abortion as just another sermon from on high.

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An edited version of this article was previously published in The Australian on 3 August 2004.

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About the Author

Catharine Lumby is an associate professor of media studies at the University of Sydney and the author of Bad Girls and Gotcha: Life in a Tabloid World. She writes regularly for The Age.

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