The debate on abortion, bitterly polarised for three decades between pro-life and pro-abortion advocates, is shifting ground. Neither side is giving way on their basic objective to make abortion completely lawful or unlawful, but points of agreement are emerging.
The shift is more evident in the Unites States than here. Recently senate minority leader Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton, two senators on opposite sides of the abortion debate, wrote an opinion article together in which they asserted: "We believe it is necessary for all Americans to join together and embrace policies that will reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies, reduce the number of abortions and expand access to women's health care … It makes the most sense to prevent unintended pregnancies in the first place … (and to) fund programs that support women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term and raise healthy children."
In Australia, the Federal Government's decision to fund a helpline to offer supportive counselling to women who are in distress about pregnancy would seem to fit this new approach. Here the initiative has come under attack from Reproductive Choice Australia and some such as pro-abortion Senators Lyn Allison and Natasha Stott Despoja. They attack the initiative because the service will exclude those connected to providing abortion services.
Leslie Cannold (The Age, April 17, 2006) misses the point of this pregnancy counselling initiative altogether. The reason for establishing pregnancy counselling is to provide support for women who are pregnant. The rationale for it is the view, held by a majority of Australians, that the abortion rate is too high.
Pregnancy termination services on demand are readily available in Australia. The services are advertised, accessible and well-funded by Medicare.
But there is a lack of balance, as the option of continuing with pregnancy, and services to support women in distress or in need, are not so available, nor have they been as well-funded, as abortion providers have been.
Given that pregnancy support has been largely privately funded, the organisations have been connected with charities, including church charities. Their policy has been to provide professional counselling support to pregnant women, backed by the ability to offer services, whether financial, social or emotional, needed by women who may be pressured by a boyfriend or family to terminate, or who may become mothers in difficult circumstances. The philosophy is essentially pro-woman. Those services also support women who have chosen to have an abortion and remain in need of support, especially those experiencing grief over the loss of the child.
Cannold's mistake is to think that counselling women who are pregnant and in need of support need not be anything more than information-giving. To have real choice, a woman distressed by pregnancy needs more than the hard facts and the offer to arrange a termination. If and when Reproductive Choice Australia has a history of providing tangible support to women to continue with a pregnancy, it may have some pro-woman credibility.
There is much clearer agreement about the need to reduce unplanned pregnancy, and for that matter, sexually transmissible infection. The incidence of the latter is climbing at an alarming rate, especially among 19 to 29-year-olds.
There is little agreement about how to reduce unplanned pregnancy and infection. Again there is a polarity between promoting condoms and the pill on the one hand, and promoting abstinence on the other. On this matter there is some evidence available: sex education programs that promote abstinence only and programs that promote contraception only do not work. Neither promoting facts without values, nor values without facts, actually works.
There is evidence that more sophisticated programs that combine both values and the facts can delay sexual initiation and reduce the transmission of STIs and unplanned pregnancy. Factors associated with delayed sexual initiation include higher academic performance, supportive relationships with both parents, parents of a higher economic and social status and attending religious services.
There are also strong associations between early sexual initiation and other risks such as drug and alcohol misuse, self-harm and suicide.
The crucial issue seems to be to seek a middle ground so that we can develop strong partnerships for the benefit of young people.
Politicians and educators need to focus on how they can better provide support to parents in their task of nurturing young people and to young people so that they are able to be engaged in mutually supportive communities and activities that remove the need to offer sex in order to try to find love.
We need, as a community, to look past our differences in order to seek common ground that is evidence-based. Neither preaching abstinence, on the one hand, nor promoting condoms, the pill and free abortion, on the other, is actually a solution to meeting the complex needs of young people.