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Legalising abortion in Victoria

By Sukrit Sabhlok - posted Wednesday, 28 December 2005

After taking the Liberal Party’s conservative stance to a range of social issues, Victorian Opposition leader Robert Doyle has finally offered a welcome dose of classical liberalism. Speaking out in support of choice with regards to abortion, Doyle argued that politicians should not interfere with clinical decisions.

As he said in The Age this month, “These matters are between medical practitioners, women and their families”. What he didn’t say was that any philosophical case against governments dictating their views on abortion is fundamentally an argument against infringement of individual rights.

Yes, women must have full control over their reproductive arrangements and be able to discuss these with a qualified doctor without being exposed to government whims. But nor should the government pay for abortions. To force those who strongly object to the practice of abortion to subsidise the associated costs with their taxes is not appropriate.


Look deeper into the arguments against abortion and you will notice a desire to micro-manage women’s lives. We are told that women experience grief and are psychologically scarred after aborting a foetus. This is true in some cases, but the fact that many women have a tremendous psychological burden lifted by aborting an unwanted baby is reason enough to not stifle, through government compulsion, the practice of abortion.

The number of abortions is utilised by social conservatives like Tony Abbott to press their case, yet the numbers are irrelevant. Instead of focusing on placing limits on abortion, or the types of abortion that can be performed, these conservatives would do better to focus on preventing coerced abortions. Sex education in schools is an effective measure to tackle the problem without stifling individual freedom.

It is unfortunate that abortion is technically illegal in Victoria under the Crimes Act. Instead, abortion is performed under the common law Menhennitt ruling of 1969, which allows terminations that are deemed necessary to protect the life or physical or mental health of the woman. Unless it gives women real freedom to choose, Victoria threatens to lag behind the rest of the Australia - abortion was decriminalised in Western Australia in 1998, Tasmania in 2001 and the Australian Capital Territory in 2002. It is time this injustice was corrected.

The incumbent Labor Party refuses to tackle this mildly controversial issue in the year leading up to the 2006 election because it is fearful of electoral backlash. But Premier Steve Bracks should not worry so much: polls generally show the majority of Victorians, and indeed the majority of Australians, are pro-choice when it comes to abortion, and this community support has been consistent over time.

An Australian Gallup Poll conducted in 1980 found 29.8 per cent thought abortion should always be legal; 24.3 per cent thought it appropriate in cases of exceptional hardship; 24.1 per cent thought abortion justified if the mother’s health is in danger; 13 per cent thought it should be legal only if the mother’s life was in danger; and only 8.8 per cent thought abortion should not be legal under any circumstances.

When asked the question, “Do you approve or disapprove of the termination of unwanted pregnancies through surgical abortion?” in a 1998 Bulletin-Morgan Poll, nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) said they approved, with only 25 per cent disagreeing. In the same poll, 53 per cent of Victorians thought it should be easier to obtain an abortion and only 10 per cent thought it should be made harder.


The message such polls send could not be clearer: a majority of Australians support abortion with some qualifications. The challenge for politicians is to persuade them the principle of individual liberty involved is important enough to extend that support to abortion under all circumstances.

Doyle’s plan in government is to allow a conscience vote on abortion; this is perhaps a roundabout and uncertain of way of making abortion legal under the law. It is a debate that some within the party need to have however. While enforcing party discipline on such a sensitive issue is not necessarily the right thing, it could at least provide some certainty of outcome for the public.

At the very least, if Bracks cannot legalise abortion because it goes against a “culture of life”, Cabinet should move to acknowledge in legislation that government involvement in mandating actions on abortion should be minimised, reserved only for extremely contentious cases. Even then however, the onus of proof is in this case strongly on the Bracks Government. It is up to them to show why they are justified in creating uncertainty among women desiring to surgically terminate unwanted babies.

It is not enough to merely amend the Act, although it is a valuable first step. Further steps should be taken to completely hand over such decisions to private citizens and their medical practitioners. If internal opposition within the party does not strike down a Bill that legalises abortion and withdraws the government from this immensely personal issue, then it will be a just outcome for all residents of Victoria.

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About the Author

Sukrit Sabhlok is a PhD Candidate at Macquarie University Law School.

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