Legalising abortion

The Victorian government has decided that it is going to decriminalise abortion in this state, and clarify the legal position. I’m glad. I think it’s best to be totally clear about the exact situations in which abortion will be legal or illegal. Much better than leaving things in a legal and moral vacuum.

I do not think that abortion should be illegal, or perhaps I should say that I believe that it shoudld be legal in some circumstances. As far as I am concerned, there are clearly circumstances where a woman should be able to choose whether or not to keep a child: where the child is the product of a rape, for example, or where a child is likely to be severely disabled. And what if the mother is unwell or unable to cope with a child for some reason? But on the other hand, I am very wary of late term abortions unless there is a very good reason (for example, the child has a massive congenital defect).

The abortion issue is such a divisive one. I don’t feel that I can be quite comfortable with either extreme position. I think women should think carefully before having an abortion, and, as far as I’m aware, the vast majority of women do. I have had some friends who have taken this step, and I do not think these women made the choice lightly. I would never castigate them for taking that step, and I do not think it is my place to do so. Nor would I judge them if they had chosen to keep the child.

Would I have done the same in similar circumstances? I just don’t know. When I saw my daughter at the 12 week ultrasound, I was amazed at how perfect and developed she was already. My daughter is such a precious bundle of joy, but she has had the luck to be born into a stable family with parents who can look after her.

The other difficulty is that it takes two people to create a child, but only one person bears the child. So there are two people who have an interest in what happens to the child, but one person (the man) is able to walk away if he wants to, whereas the other person (the woman) will at least have to bear the child, even if she then gives it up for adoption. The burden of the child is disproportionately on the woman. I do get a bit frustrated with men jumping up and down about the issue and telling women what to do. Yes of course they have a right to an opinion on the issue, and of course the father of a child should be able to have a say in what happens to the child. But ultimately, the man isn’t the one who has to cope with the child when it arrives. If he wants, he can walk away the day after conception and never see the child again. This just isn’t possible for the woman. She is literally the one left holding the baby!

What I do object to is someone telling me that I cannot make certain choices because of what their faith says, when I do not share that faith. I’m perfectly happy for people to make choices for themselves on the basis of their own faith. I’m also perfectly happy to have a reasoned dialogue with someone whose moral perspective is informed by their faith. But I’m not just going to agree that a certain thing should be done on the basis of a faith that I do not share, without discussing the issue in a logical and calm manner. I think that the move to legalise abortion is a good thing; it will hopefully lead to some logical and calm decisions about what is right and wrong in this very difficult area of morality and law.

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20 Comments

Filed under abortion, feminism, law, law reform, motherhood, parenthood, politics, religion

20 responses to “Legalising abortion

  1. pete m

    LE: “I’m perfectly happy for people to make choices for themselves on the basis of their own faith.”

    It is my faith that males should have 5 wives. It is further my faith that the wives be permitted to marry once they reach puberty. That upon reaching puberty, females achieve an age where they may consent to marriage and sexual activity. If this girl has this faith and makes that choice for themself, this abides by your comment.

    /removes devil’s advocate hat

    Do I understand your point? Why then do we have an age of consent law and bigamy laws? Is that imposing some religious or other belief upon everyone?

    The whole debate comes down to this:

    When does the foetus gain any rights, if ever?

    To think a doctor can perform a 36 week abortion on a healthy baby (it was not a dwarf)(which could survive without any assistance if separated from the uterus), by sticking a needle in it’s heart, beggars belief.

    I agree, let’s have a clear law – this is murder.

  2. I agree. That is murder, or at least infanticide.

    I was born at less than 30 weeks and survived. My mother and I couldn’t help be very uncomfortable with that case of the late “termination” – it was a viable baby, not a foetus. It could have survived outside the womb, and they presumably had to kill it.

    I watched a show a few months back called “Little People”, which showed that people with dwarfism can have happy and fulfilling lives – made me think of that case again, and wonder what was right.

  3. I think what bothers me about the “abortion issue” is that it’s not really a “moral issue” it’s a political issue.

    There is no doubt abortion is not as simple as a “choice,” it’s a life altering experience, but banning it is not a “solution.”

    Here in the U.S. what I see from the “pro-life” crowd is not so much about “life,” but about sex. They are trying to regulate sex, specifically the sexual behavior of women.

    There’s a growing sentiment among the “pro-life” crowd to ban hormonal birth control, and they frame it around the abortion issue calling hormonal birth control “abortifacients.” They attack stem-cell research, gay marriage, sex education etc etc. They have, or at least they are trying, to cover every aspect of human sexuality all the way from the cellular level to who you can or cannot marry.

    It’s really nothing new, as religion has always tried to control sex, but I find it disturbing nonetheless. Sex is one of the most human of behaviors, and attempts to regulate it are ominous to say the least.

    Abortion is unfortunate. I’d love a world where they were not performed. But it’s illogical to assume banning them would solve the problem. Abortions are not heroin. You don’t get raped by heroin and you don’t “accidentally” use heroin.

    Abortion is a symptom of huge social problem, and until people are ready to face the truth things will never change.

  4. Fairlane, excellent comment. I agree with you. I also think it is unrealistic to expect that unplanned pregnancies can be abolished by some kind of “moral crusade”. Sex is part of human nature, and some people will always have sex outside of marital relationships. It doesn’t matter what kind of repressive regime you have to stop it happening.

    I also do not support the inference that women who have abortions are somehow “immoral” or “sluttish” and that it’s all their fault. It takes two to create a baby. I don’t know why the woman always gets blamed.

  5. Woah, can of worms time, LE.

    I suspect abortion probably is murder, but our society has come up with all sorts of exceptions to the supposedly complete prohibition on murder. War. Self-defence. Insanity. There are also a range of partial defences and mitigating circumstances, without getting into the whole death penalty debate.

    It’s my view that abortion is one of the exceptions, although framing it legally is always going to be fraught with angst.

    On purely rational grounds, allowing the state to interfere in individual choices is almost always going to have negative (costlier) consequences. Make abortion illegal, and you’ll have more dead people – dead foetuses and dead women who try to abort using medically unsound techniques.

    At present, I’m not convinced by bright-line arguments based on viability outside the womb, as medical science continues to drag the viability date backwards in time. Some sort of sliding scale may finish up easier to apply – complete freedom in the earlier stages of pregnancy, with more restrictions in place as time passes.

    I do think it’s better to force complexities into the open by acknowledging the murder at the heart of the choice and applying a cost benefit analysis from there. Pretending that abortion doesn’t kill has cost pro-choice advocates dearly.

  6. lostinsuburbia

    it’s such a loaded issue isn’t it?
    To seperate morality from it is near impossible. Those of us who have had children, healthy children, remember the moment we discovered we were pregnant. And once the intitial “Oh crap” sinks in, you love that baby even in it’s embryonic state. It’s hard for me as a mother to seperate the idea of embryo/feotus/baby, since in my mind they are all the same and illicit the same instictual reaction.

    of course I have never been in a situation where abortion would have even been considered as an option. I was a pregnant teen. But I am still married to my childrens father and I had a supportive family who would have been there for me in the event of a relationship breakdown and or any medical hiccup. I have a child who is visually impaired- my 2nd child- and I sometimes wonder, had they picked it up in my ultrasounds, would my husband and I have done things differently? We’d all like to think we wouldn’t, but until you are faced with the dilemma, well it’s easy to sit in judgement when you have never had to walk the mile so to speak.

    A clear law is something we need. A law that defines when it is no longer a medically assisted miscarriage and when it becomes something far more sinister. Severe disability, yes I think had I ever concieved a child with a severe disability, I would have at the very least entertained the idea of abortion if not gone through with it. Threat to life, yes, had the child I was carrying endangered my life, then yes, I believe I would choose to abort. (If that makes me selfish so be it) How easily we forget the enourmous toll pregnancy andchildbirth has on a womans body and I don’t just mean aesthetically. Even today women still die from pregnancy related problems, in child birth and after child birth from complications.
    Had I been raped, then yes, I would have aborted.

    There is a very long list of valid reasons to abort. And just as many not to. It all comes back to choice. And how horrible would it be where we to be stripped of that choice? To have to go back to the days of the back alley coathanger abortions?

    A clear law is definately what we need.

  7. Excellent comments all. Skepticlawyer, I agree that if you concede that you are actually killing a potential human being, this gives you a greater moral credence. Because, as you say, in our society the broad principle is “Thou shalt not kill”, but we have all kinds of exceptions to that rule.

    Your comments about both women and children dying if abortion is outlawed are also true. Abortion happens, whether it is legal or not, and it’s really a question of how we manage it to minimise loss of life (both mother and child), yet still cater for situations where it should be an option.

    I also agree that you can’t draw a bright line distinction between viable and non-viable foetuses. There are some cases when it seems wrong (the case of the woman who terminated at 32 weeks because her child potentially had dwarfism) and there are some cases when it seems fine to me (morning after pill). But in between, there’s some awfully hard cases. What of a late termination of a child who has a really bad deformity such that it won’t survive outside the womb even with extensive medical intervention? I tend to think that this should be legal.

    Lostinsuburbia, I also agree with your comments. If my own life had been risked by pregnancy, I would have terminated it. I don’t think that’s selfish.

    An interesting question is that raised by Professor Peter Singer – if we allow termination of a severely disabled child in late pregnancy, what about killing a severely disabled child just after birth when it becomes evident that the child will have no joy in life and will have a short life with great pain? As he correctly points out, there doesn’t seem to be a clear distinction between those situations.

    Termination of pregnancies where a child is disabled also raises other moral questions. I myself suffer from a mild disability as a result of my premature birth so I know that one can overcome disability and live a normal happy life. Nonetheless, would I have been happy if my daughter had this disability? No, I would have been very upset (although at least I could help her overcome it from personal experience).

    But what of severe disabilities? And where does one draw the line between a mild disability and a severe disability? For example, being sight impaired or hearing impaired is quite a profound disability, but many people with these disabilities live long and happy lives (as long and happy as anyone else).

    What of something like very severe autism, which only becomes evident later? I’m thinking here of a situation where the child has no recognition whatsoever of people and cannot talk or interact with the world (as opposed to some of the milder varieties of autism, where a child has difficulties interacting with others). We had a family friend whose child suffered from very severe autism. He had no understanding that other people were people (he didn’t even seem to have much reaction to his parents or siblings). He couldn’t talk, he couldn’t interact with anyone, and he certainly didn’t seem to get much enjoyment out of life. He had these terrifying rages where he’d just destroy stuff for no reason at all that we could see. Poor kid. It really was tragic. One worried what would happen to him when his parents got older and couldn’t look after him anymore.

    If there had been a way of detecting this in the womb, would his parents have terminated the pregnancy? I know I would have done, no matter how late in the pregnancy it was.

    A can of worms indeed, but I think it’s one that we should open and think about. Much better than to shove it under the carpet and not think about the legalities at all. And it’s also important to recognise that it’s not black and white – there’s all kinds of shades of grey.

  8. I think you treat the position of men in the decision making process too lightly. Let’s assume abortion is legal for a minute. Of course the woman, whose body is the one subject to the pregnancy and/or procedure, is the absolute, final decision maker.

    However, reflect on how incredibly disempowering it is for a man. If you desperately do not want the child, you are basically going to look like Hitler if you argue for an abortion. If you do want it, you could have that option taken away from you at any moment. Most men I know, including me, would not be able to simply say, “you’re the one having the child that I don’t want, so I’m walking away.” If a girl decided to go ahead against my wishes, I would naturally feel bound to stick around and assist. So in other words, we’re talking about a fundamentally life-changing decision which is entirely in the hands of someone you may not share any ideology with, or in some cases trust or even really know.

    As for the broader debate: surely a line has to be drawn between “potential human being” and “actual, sentient human being.” With reproductive technology going the way it is, it won’t be too long before a person can be cloned from any sample of cellular material – what, in a rational sense, is the difference between say a clump of skin cells and a clump of cells in a womb at the very early stages of a natural pregnancy? I submit that there is none whatsoever. Which of course takes you in one of two sharply divergent directions…

  9. Paul, I take your point. What I had in mind was a man who believed that abortion was wrong saying that a woman should keep a child. Of course he has a say, but she’s the one who has to bear the child.

    However, the situation you raise is equally problematic. What if a man really didn’t want a child, but the woman wanted to keep it. Should the man then be financially responsible for that child, even though he would prefer that the pregnancy have been terminated?

    Thorny issues all.

  10. lostinsuburbia

    Thorny issues indeed. Even within the scope of severe disability. My sons condition is a rare one, and is usually found in children with chromosomal disorders, (Downsyndrome, Rhett’s Disease, Fragile X etc.) and more commonly among those of multiple births with chromosomal disorders. So I do wonder if we had known then there was a potential for this type of disability would we have opted to abort.

    There is absolutley nothing wrong with our child aside from the visual impairment. (We feel phenomonally grateful) On our online support group we found a couple who had adopted a child from South America at four months of age. At 14 months he was diagnosed with the same visual disorder my son has and they promptly gave him back. So even if women do go through with carrying disabled children and choose to adopt them out, there is no gaurantee they will find a suitable home to be loved in and adequately cared for. (Adoption being the most trumped up alternative spouted by the pro-life supporters.) So we end up with more cildren in an inadequate health system that struggles to care for the families who need it now.

    Having said all that I would hate to be the person who has to make the call on what constitutes as illegal and what doesn’t.

  11. Zoe

    My recollection of the late abortion for “dwarfism” is that the indication relied on by the medical team was the state of the pregnant woman’s mental health in response to that diagnosis rather than any characteristic of the foetus; perhaps a fine distinction but the law’s full of those ; )

  12. Zoe, point take – although it’s a bit chicken and egg – the diagnosis of dwarfism created the psychiatric condition…so the characteristic of the foetus was the root cause of the termination. Modern technology creates these moral issues which were not present in the past. Like Lostinsuburbia, I wouldn’t like to be the one making these decisions. But it’s good to have more of a legal framework in which to do it.

    It is a difficult question. If this woman was suicidal because she thought her child might suffer from dwarfism, should she be forced to bear the child anyway? Could they have performed a caesarian then and there, and tried to save the child rather than kill it? Could they have administered some anti-depressant medication to help her (or had that already been tried)? Or should people try to persuade her that people who suffer from dwarfism can have happy lives? That documentary I mentioned above was interesting in that the people featured in it ranged from those who were happy with their condition to those who were frustrated. Should the woman have been forced carrythe child to term and then given it to someone who would love it and wanted to care for it? But then the child might feel awful when it discovered its mother had rejected it.

    No easy solutions. But I did feel squeamish about that particular situation – killing a 32 week old foetus is very different to me than getting rid of a bundle of cells. Perhaps it’s because I know how responsive my own baby was at that stage (jumping in the womb when she heard loud noises, getting excited when I drank hot chocolate). And it’s also because of my own early birth at 29 weeks – I know from my parents’ accounts I already had the same stubborn personality that I have now, and the same love of food (I’d get very excited when the milk came along).

  13. MsLaurie

    I’ve always thought that the man involved should have a strong input into the pregnancy outcome.

    Maybe… 40/60 in favour of the woman? – as you note, she does physically go though the life-altering pregnancy. But that man will also be affected by the outcome for the rest of their lives, financially and legally.

    I do get frustrated at commentry which suggests women abort ‘without thought’ – as a woman in her mid-twenties, I have known a few people who have aborted, or had pregnancy scares. Not one of these people ever considered their options lightly. It was always a difficult choice. Women know what they are doing when they choose to abort, or to keep the pregnancy.

  14. I do get frustrated at commentry which suggests women abort ‘without thought’

    Onya, MsLaurie. This idiocy persists through not only “prolife” talking points, but many people who are nominally “pro-choice” but think women can’t be trusted if it’s made legal.

    But on the other hand, I am very wary of late term abortions unless there is a very good reason (for example, the child has a massive congenital defect).

    See, this is where you lost me, Legal Eagle. Do you have any actual evidence that women just lightly and callously abort, for no good reason, in the late second or third trimester? Please bring it on. I know about the example of the woman with the child with possible dwarfism, because it’s probably the most controversial example, and that’s why Julian McGauran and others have trotted it out again and again; there simply isn’t the evidence that any women, who isn’t suffering from florid mental illness like that one, are just going wild with Teh late Abortion.

    It’s a furphy which hides a basic attitude: women cannot be trusted with the decision to abort or not to abort.

    It’s ironic that we trust absolutely anybody to actually bring a child to term – and man, that’s where the suffering really starts. If I could change the course of history and make it that Jaidyn Leskie had been aborted, I could have saved the little fellow a horrible life. (That’s a tangent, sorry!)

  15. Helen, yes, I agree, most women are likely to put in a great deal of thought when having a mid-term or late-term abortion. But I still think it should be limited to situations where there is a good reason (such as massive congenital deformities). Maternal health would be another good one (risk to life of mother). A difficult one is being unable to financially support a child. I know how hard it is to afford a child and I’m in a stable relationship. Should we allow late term abortions for this reason? My head says yes, and my heart says no. What reasons are you proposing? Tell me.

    Have you read Freakonomics on the topic of abortion? They drew a parallel between availability of abortion in American states and level of youth crime…about 20 years after abortion had been allowed in a particular state, youth crime would suddenly fall… I think there’s interesting conundrums here for people who are pro-life but also pro-law-and-order.

    My heart bleeds at the thought of kids who are killed or abused by their parents (like Jaidyn Leskie or that little boy who was beaten to death recently). But then again, I know a guy who was horribly abused by his mother’s boyfriends, but has grown up into an intelligent and compassionate adult. I’m glad he got a chance to live.

  16. See, this is like the “women will use abortion as a contraceptive” idea. Where is the evidence that late-term abortions for purely economic reasons will rise if early abortions are safe, legal and readily available? and where is the evidence that any women, apart from the mental and social trainwrecks, would be aborting again again and again simply because they can’t be bothered to use contraception? (There will always be the trainwrecks out there, but we shouldn’t build public policy just to accommodate them.) These arguments, which I hear from “reasonable” people, are common to the position of “pro choice, but let’s make them go through a lot of hoops and humiliate them first because otherwise they’ll GO WILD!1!”

    Do you see what I mean? Is this not predicated on a world view which deems women to be essentially stupid and/or wicked? If you then say SOME are (the trainwrecks), then I repeat, why let anyone and everyone give birth?

  17. My understanding is that women only use abortion as a contraceptive in societies where there are no reasonable (ie genuine) alternatives, as in the USSR before the demise of Communism.

    Like Helen, I don’t think that women will suddenly ‘go wild’ if abortion is made legal on very liberal terms. I do think, however, that the issues are more complex the longer the pregnancy progresses, and that this should be acknowledged by parties on all sides.

    Very much one for the discretionary equitable jurisdiction, LE 😉

  18. Helen-from-cast-iron-balcony (gosh, all these Helens!), yes, I agree, early abortion should be readily available to all women. That would largely get around many problems. But I can think of scenarios where it wouldn’t (well, I am a lawyer).

    I’ve heard of people not realising they were pregnant until they were 3 or 4 months gone. Some women don’t realise they are pregnant until they give birth! Seems quite astonishing to me (I felt horribly sick from about week 6, and started getting kicked by my daughter from about week 12, and looked like Mrs Humungous Blimpo from about week 20).

    My friend’s mother (a lady of traditional proportions) didn’t realise she was pregnant with my friend until she was 5 or 6 months gone…went to the doctor to see why her diet wasn’t working. If she had had a choice (ie, realised earlier) she would have had an abortion because she had a whole set of difficult exams to undergo. As it was, she did them with my friend in a bassinet under the desk (pretty tough).

    I certainly do not presume women as a species to be intrinsically wicked or immoral. Never. The whole point of the post was not to make blanket statements about what is right. But even though I am largely “pro-choice”, I concede that there are areas where I would prefer that a woman not have a choice. And I do think that the issues get much more complex the more developed a foetus is. However, it’s very much a case by case judgment, in which specific facts have to be weighed up. SL, I agree totally, definitely an area for flexible equitable discretion. 😀

  19. Donna

    I am almost 41 years old and I gave birth to two premature babies. One at 22 weeks and the other at 23 weeks. Both weighed one pound each. One is now 19 and the other is 18 years old. They both walk, talk, have feelings, look good, eat, drink, read, show goats and has brought in Grand Champion Meat goats at the fair and in 4-H more than one time each. They were in compitition with kids there own age and all were normal full term babies and my kids sstill brought in Grand Champian over all of Grange, 4-H, and FFA.
    This took alot of hard work and patients but it also is very rewarding and is lots of fun. I would have never abortd my babies.
    My husband has cheated on me and the other woman had an abortion with a normal baby. I would have tooken care of that child if god would have given her to me. That took place when my pre-mature children were about 7 and 8 years old and I could have enjoyed the life of a child that god had sent. However it was the right of the other lady to abort her child by law. That is not fair to her husband who has no idea she even aborted the baby. Her and her husband have two of their own children and he is developmentally disabled but his children and wife are normal. He is sterile and she did not want him to know of his affair so she lied to the clinic and aborted the baby. She got the money from my father in law on his death bed. He did not agree but since it was his daughter that was pregnant, he paid for the abortion. Then he told me what happened. I am devistated that some one or any one would take a childs life to hide their own wrong doings or for social purposes.

  20. debbie

    i am at the moment going through a terrible situation with my 21 year old daughter she was raped earlier this year by her none blood cousin the police would not bring charges on the person who raped her that is only the first thing in a long line of horrible events for her the second was when she told me the same evening what had happened we arranged for her to go straight to her gp for the morning after pill and various swabs and blood tests as this person who attacked my daughter is a prolific drug user all her test apart from one std have apparently been lost we have since found out four weeks after the morning after pill my daughter then went to her gp for the depo contraceptive injection where they did a urine sample before giving her the injection this too was lost then after around 8 weeks after this my daughter was generally unwell so had to go to the local hospital where she was in pain in her abdomen and had not been eating well the doctor they did yet another urine test and picked up blood in her urine what they said was left from her period and also that she was using her body ketones from not getting enough food examined her stomach when press my daughter jump sky high as she had pain on pressing the doctor then told her she had gas and gave her yet again more pills for this 16 weeks after this and having gained some weight a girl tormenting my daughter said when are you due this turned into an argument between this girl and my daughter who was definite she was not pregnant and my daughter bought a pregnancy test to prove she was not pregnant but to find the test positive that is when her world fell apart yet again she immediately went to her gp who sent her for an emergency scan who confirmed she was 25 weeks and 4 days a week over the time guidelines here in the uk for a termination my daughter is so distraught she is wanting to have the baby terminated we are now going through the process of having to ask for a let termination for her and anyone who thinks this is an easy choice as this now involves a process called feticiede a job what no one wants and understandably i agree how hard this must be for any doctor to do but what my daughter feels is necessary for her to not take her own life and is now in total terror she has all the approval of psychiatrists and gps in place and has now been sat four weeks in heartache and physical pain waiting for a decision as to if a doctor will now help her to terminate this pregnancy anyone out there who thinks for one minute that things like this are decide easy are well off beam and cannot begin to imagine the heartache and souls searching that this involves imagine having a little girl your little girl who you love and have to protect and cherish and have to stand by and watch her torture herself wanting to die because she is so petrified that she will be forced to have this baby how can anyone say that is and easy option when this is also my grandchild and either nephew or niece it is not easy for anyone but doesn’t my daughter have the right to continue to live without terror and torture i love my daughter but people would realise that this is not about a girl just wanting something to go away this is about survival for her and for her this is the only way she can live and no way on this earth should there be any doubt that the treatment she needs should be there for her and we are sat here today waiting for a decision as to if she can have to treatment
    and as the saying goes there before the grace of god go i

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