QUEENSLAND politicians were in the middle of debating changes to the state’s abortion laws when figures on the rate of live-birth abortions surfaced.
Health Minister Cameron Dick released figures recently on the number of late-term abortions where babies survived, but were not given care.
The figures showed 27 babies were born alive following an abortion procedure in 2015.
The total number of babies who survived an abortion, but were not given care since 2005 was 204.
The Health Minister said these abortions complied with the Queensland Maternity and Neonatal Therapeutic Termination of Pregnancy Guide, which outlined how an abortion should be procured.
The document gives three sentences to situations that could arise in a live birth, and instructs the practitioner to “ensure there are local procedures for the management of live birth” including counselling.
But Australian ethicists, lawyers and post-abortion counsellors are wary of the guidelines and law that protect it, saying it blurs the line between what is ethically, legally and morally right or wrong.
Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics director Fr Kevin McGovern believes the guideline’s statement on “procedures for management” have little to do with the baby’s health.
“They won’t say it of course, but management means making sure the baby dies,” Fr McGovern said.
A “chilling” concern for Fr McGovern is the document’s recourse to prevent live births through “feticide”, where an ultrasound is used to inject the baby’s heart with potassium, usually reserved for gestation of more than 22 weeks.
The procedure is outlined in full in the therapeutic termination of pregnancy document.
“From an ethical perspective, all the way along, this is a human being,” Fr McGovern said.
“At all the stages, we should be trying to make decisions that respects the life of the developing child.”
While it can be tempting to over-emphasise the rights of the child, Fr McGovern believes care for the woman should also be a priority for those in the pro-life movement.
Fr McGovern said a woman in a crisis pregnancy did not need to hear while deciding whether to keep the baby that she shouldn’t kill the child.
“What she hears is, ‘We don’t care about you, only your baby’ and she can feel abandoned, and believes her only choice is to terminate,” he said.
Fr McGovern is not the only one parading this “pro-woman approach” in the abortion debate.
St John Paul II, who in a question on abortion published in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, said the “only honest stance … is that of radical solidarity with the woman. It is not right to leave her alone”.
Taking a pro-woman strategy was the only way to help a woman with an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy change her mind, Fr McGovern said.
“The only person who can make a different choice is the woman,” he said.
Regarding the recent figures on late-term live abortion rates, Fr McGovern said it was unclear whether the decisions were made because the baby was in a “life-limiting condition”.
“Some health practitioners will present termination as the only way, and others will present two choices but will try to make termination look the most realistic,” he said.
But there was another choice and it was called perinatal palliative care, something Fr McGovern believed the pro-choice constituents bury deep in the ground.
Fr McGovern has walked with women and their families who choose to continue a pregnancy despite knowing the child will die within five minutes to several days.
“These women choose to continue the pregnancy and are receiving support because it’s not an easy journey, I always say it’s a bitter-sweet journey,” he said.
“The bitterness is knowing your baby is going to die, but the sweetness is that you still have that special time to spend with the baby.”
Many hundreds of women who have chosen perinatal care over having an abortion were grateful for having the choice to hold their child “even for five minutes”.
“It’s a hard decision to continue the pregnancy and protect the baby, but the instinct of the parents is not to kill them,” Fr McGovern said.
“Our task in counselling is to offer non-directives to take away the fear, and lots of folk will take up life-giving choices if they have no fear.”
More about perinatal palliative care from PNPC:
Fr McGovern referred to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s initiative, Walking with Love, which offers women alternatives and responses to abortion.
The rate of live-birth abortions in Queensland was raised on ABC TV’s Q&A last week, filmed in Brisbane with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull taking questions ahead of the federal election.
A medical student asked the Prime Minister how the Federal Government would respond to the figures.
She said there was “nothing quite so horrifying as letting a baby perish in a clinic”.
Mr Turnbull said the cases were “shocking” but that it was a matter for Queensland’s jurisdiction on abortion laws.
“I’m not familiar with the precise terms of the law in Queensland relating to abortion, late-term or otherwise,” Mr Turnbull said.
“You’ve asked me as the Prime Minister and me as the leader of the Federal Government, what we can do about that, and again, I don’t know enough about the circumstances but the law that relates to abortion is very much within the jurisdiction of your parliament here in Queensland.”
While abortion laws are no longer black-and-white with the introduction of a private member’s bill to legalise abortion in Queensland, the law protecting the right to life of a child is crystal clear.
Australian lawyer Rocco Mimmo, who has an interest in human rights topics, advised The Catholic Leader of the legal qualifications that could have surrounded all 204 live birth abortion cases.
He said the figures released by Mr Dick raised the question of who was legally responsible for the deaths of the children.
If the 204 babies who survived a late-term abortion took a breath outside the womb, according to Mr Mimmo they would have been classified by law as “a viable human” entitled to the protection of their right to life as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 3.
Any neglect to preserve their life under Australia’s ordinary criminal code could constitute “unlawful killing or unlawful act of abandonment of the duty of care”, Mr Mimmo said.
“If a child took a breath, the onus is on the doctors to preserve the life, and in the absence of appropriate medical intervention, it could constitute as wilful murder,” he said.
Under Queensland’s Criminal Code, section 292, a child becomes a human being “capable of being killed when it has completely proceeded in a living state from the body of its mother, whether it has breathed or not, and whether it has an independent circulation or not, and whether the navel-string is severed or not”.
In the cases of the 204 babies surviving late-term abortions in Queensland, the law set up to protect a born human being would “override” even the legal right to procure an abortion.
“This law overrides all other considerations,” Mr Mimmo said.
Cherish Life Queensland president Teresa Martin said the figures raised a concern into the legal protection of the unborn in Queensland if abortion became legal.
“If this is the number when preborn babies are still protected by law in this state, what will that figure rise to when all protection for them is removed?” Ms Martin said.
There is also the question of abortion as an option to be fair to a child that may be born with a disability.
Abortion rights advocate at Children By Choice told the ABC that a decision to have a late-term abortion could be influenced by “foetal abnormality”.
However, Mr Mimmo said such a statement endangered the lives of unborn children with disabilities.
“It says that every disabled child should be in fear of their life,” he said.
Abortion grief counsellor Anne Lastman is also not sold on the idea that a mother might decide to have an abortion to protect the child.
For more than 20 years, Mrs Lastman has worked with thousands of women and men who experience significant trauma after terminating a pregnancy.
Some of Mrs Lastman’s “girls” make the choice to have an abortion at six to seven months’ gestation.
But the decision very rarely, if at all, is based on the health of the child.
“A mother, she’s not thinking at the time, especially if she’s waited for such a long time to have an abortion at a late stage,” Mrs Lastman said.
“Obviously she has a crisis in her life, maybe she’s split from her husband or boyfriend.
“What she’s done is she’s divorced herself from the baby… she can’t even see it as a fully formed, living and breathing baby.
“The hurt inside her head is so huge, that whatever the hurt is, it’s bigger than the baby.
“She is just sitting there (in the abortion clinic) really cold, not with anybody.”
Mrs Lastman’s journey with post-abortive women began after experiencing 20 years of trauma following her own two abortions and one miscarriage.
She found healing in naming her unborn children, and believes the two she chose to abort have since forgiven her.
Mrs Lastman said the “evil” of abortion was not just that it constituted a sin in the eyes of the Church, but it ignited long-term emotional trauma in women.
The trauma is worse for those who terminate in the final months of their pregnancy.
“Remember she’s already bonded with this baby for six, seven months,” Mrs Lastman said.
“She called it ‘my baby’, she has personalised the baby, but something happened.”
Women who hadhad late-term abortions would often be in “a dark spot” for up to six months after the procedure, Mrs Lastman said.
It was still possible even several years later that the mother would remember the child she aborted.
“In two, three, or four years, when she’s having another baby and sees pictures of the baby she is carrying and which she wants, she will see pictures of the baby she aborted,” Mrs Lastman said.
“She will see the pictures of how big the baby was.”
While it was unsure what the ethical and legal onus was on practitioners who procured these 204 live birth abortions, Mrs Lastman believed their neglect was a product of their practice.
“Why the doctors and nurses don’t do anything, this is my personal feminine opinion: they have done this so many times, they are desensitised to the pain of the infants, to seeing dead babies,” she said.
“It’s just another one that’s put in a bucket.
“If we are desensitised to suffering, we walk away from it.”
A spokesperson from the Department of Health said termination procedures “where babies are born with signs of life in Queensland are extremely rare”.
“A therapeutic termination is only performed to preserve the woman from serious danger to her life or physical or mental health,” the spokesperson said.
“However, it is most common that the pregnancy will involve a foetus with a lethal or life-limiting condition, making it clinically inappropriate or futile to provide anything other than compassionate or palliative care following delivery.”
The Australian Commissioner responsible for childrens’ rights was not available for comment.
By Emilie Ng