THERE are claims that a parliamentary inquiry into decriminalising abortion in Queensland is not being provided with accurate data to assist fair decision-making.
At public briefing sessions on July 12 and 13, the inquiry heard from experts about the psychological impacts post abortion, if abortion is not available, and the extent of counselling and support services for women.
State Member for Cleveland Mark Robinson attended the briefing sessions and said he was “very disappointed to hear these professionals completely under-estimate the very real psychological impacts on women’s mental health”.
“My sense is the panel glossed over the substantial body of research showing a significant and substantial impact on some women after abortion,” Dr Robinson said.
“It can be immediate or years down the track as they become more informed about the operation and what happened.”
Dr Robinson cited New Zealand research including a 2006 study co-authored by Professor David Fergusson entitled “Abortion in young women and subsequent mental health”.
The study showed that women who aborted had higher rates of mental health problems including depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviours and substance abuse.
Two years later Prof Fergusson wrote a paper for the British Journal of Psychiatry entitled “Abortion and mental health disorders: evidence from a 30-year longitudinal study”.
It concluded that: “Women who had abortions had a 30 per cent higher incidence of mental health problems according to a 30-year study following more than 500 women.”
Dr Robinson questioned why this body of research was not presented to the inquiry.
Among the evidence to the inquiry, Professor Heather Douglas, from the University of Queensland’s TC Beirne School of Law, said there was often a link between domestic violence and abortion.
Prof Douglas said there tended to be more unplanned pregnancies where women experienced violence, saying six to 22 per cent – depending on the study – of women reported recent domestic violence when seeking a termination.
“It’s no surprise that women may have unwanted pregnancies in the midst of domestic violence,” she said.
Prof Douglas warned that restricting the provision of abortion was likely to result in more women being unable to terminate unwanted pregnancies, potentially keeping them in contact with violent partners, putting them at risk.
She suggested that decriminalising abortion would have the effect of making it easier for women to leave violent relationships.
Prof Douglas also described the current legislation as out of date.
“We really should bring the law up to date with what our community is doing and what it’s expecting in a modern Queensland,” she said.
Australian Catholic University and Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture law professor Jesuit Father Frank Brennan told the inquiry that ethically there were broadly two classes of cases.
“One is where the woman is in, let’s say, a good, stable relationship with her male partner. I think the medical practitioner or the counsellor – anyone assisting the woman in those circumstances – should say to the woman, ‘Look, it is very important for you to work this through with your partner but, yes, ultimately it is your decision’,” he said.
“The second case of course is where there might be evidence that the male partner is abusive or neglectful or forever absent.
“Then they should support the woman in her dignity as she faces the privacy and the aloneness of that decision.
“Whether or not there should be a law that stipulates that – for me it would be one of those matters where I would doubt the utility of such a law.
“Basically, I think it would be unenforceable.”
Fr Brennan said he believed it important to draw a distinction between the “pre-viable” and “post-viable” foetus.
Speaking outside the inquiry he said “… it is a serious mistake to treat them as one and the same because the state does have a legitimate interest in trying to preserve the life of the child who can now live outside the womb”.
Fr Brennan said medical experts tended to say post-viability began at 24-25 weeks.
“And so, to have a foetus being aborted at 31-32 weeks, there are a lot of medical practitioners who would have very strong moral objections to that and would say, ‘Look, if that’s going to occur, I should be allowed to follow my conscience and not have any involvement in such a procedure and particularly not be required to refer the patient to someone who is known to be willing to perform an abortion on a 31-week-old foetus’,” he said.
“The Church teaching is quite traditional, namely that human life begins at conception – that doesn’t answer the question in a pluralist, democratic society, ‘What ought the law be and what law would be workable?’.
“And what I am arguing is that I think not only ought the law protect the post-viable foetus, I think such a law can be made workable.
“And in regard to a pre-viable foetus I think in Australia at the moment we are a society where there is such respect given to the woman’s own decision that to have the law intervene in there, I don’t think would be a workable law.”
The parliamentary inquiry received 858 written public submissions and is due to report on August 26.
Amongst the pro-abortion submissions the Women’s Health Victoria claimed it was “proud to have played a key role in supporting abortion law reform in Victoria in 2008”.
“Inability to access sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion, contributes to social and economic disadvantage for women and their communities and further exacerbates health inequalities,” the WHV submission contends.
“The ability to access safe reproductive health and abortion services has lifelong impacts for women’s ability to participate equally in work and community life, earn an income and care for their families.”
Many submissions address protection for medical staff, including one from Greenslopes Obstetrics and Gynaecology, signed by the practice’s seven doctors.
“… This legislation includes provisions for medical practitioners who, for reasons of conscience on the basis of religious, moral or ethical grounds, neither wish to perform nor refer to termination of pregnancy to be exempt from the legal obligation to do so,” the submission said.
“Given that even under the current legislative framework there is minimal if any difficulty in women accessing abortion services, we do not think the above provision would provide any significant impediment to women accessing these services if they wish to do so.”
Queensland Health data supports the view that there is little difficulty finding an abortion clinic.
In the past 10 years there were almost 125,000 abortions in the state’s private abortion clinics.
“It is hard to argue that women do not have access to abortions when there is such a large number currently occurring,” Dr Robinson said.
“It should also be noted that Medicare funding exists for those that are eligible.
“The argument that women are being criminalised by these laws is misleading. Even a brief consideration of the facts shows that it has been many decades since courts have convicted anyone for procuring or providing an abortion.”
By Mark Bowling