Premier Denis Napthine has reignited the debate over women’s reproductive rights

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Common sense should dictate that the issue of abortion be left to pregnant women to decide. But when the history of women’s fight for the right to abortion is considered, it’s no wonder it’s still firmly in the hands of wheeling and dealing politicians.

In the state of Victoria, abortion has made the headlines for the last two weeks with the Independent and balance-of-power MP Geoff Shaw  plotting the removal of a section of the Victorian Abortion Law Reform Act which makes it mandatory for doctors who are conscientious objectors to abortion, to provide a referral to another medical practitioner without an objection, thus giving the woman a chance to see another doctor who can help her with her decision.

In 2008 The Victorian Parliament passed the Abortion Law Reform Act which allows for a registered medical practitioner to perform an abortion on a woman who is not more than 24 weeks pregnant and allows for termination of pregnancy after 24 weeks only if the medical practitioner believes that the abortion is appropriate in all the circumstances; and that she has consulted at least one other registered medical practitioner who also reasonably believes that the abortion is appropriate in all the circumstances.

But it’s Section 8 of the act that Independent MP Geoff Shaw and several other Coalition and Labor MPs do not support and it deals with the situation where a woman requests an abortion and the doctor has a conscientious objection to abortion. In this case the practitioner must refer the woman to another registered practitioner whom the referring doctor knows does not have a conscientious objection to abortion. The other provision in contention is the allowance of terminations up to 24 weeks’ gestation.

The Premier Denis Napthine was one of the 32 MPs who voted against the decriminalisation of abortion in 2008, mainly because he did not agree with these two most controversial provisions. And in an article in The Age last week, Mr Napthine was reported to have said: ”My personal view was that 18 or 20 weeks would have been a better number, but I respect that was a decision of the Parliament.” So five years after the decriminalisation of abortion law in Victoria we have the Premier Napthine, not so respecting of the parliament and saying that he would consider any attempt by balance-of-power MP Geoff Shaw to overhaul the state’s abortion laws.

Such a move by the Catholic, Dr Napthine is both personally and politically motivated as the Coalition government needs the support of the balance-of-power MP Geoff Shaw. According to the Opposition leader Daniel Andrews: ”Denis Napthine will do anything and everything in a grubby deal with the independent member Geoff Shaw to hang on to the premiership and to hang on to government. ”Regardless of your view [on abortion] this should not be the subject of a secret backroom deal,” he said.

Abortion should not be a plaything for politicians hungry to hang on to power.

Screen shot 2013-12-08 at 6.57.24 PMIn today’s Sunday Age Dr Jo Wainer, Adjunct Associate Professor at the Eastern Health Clinical School, Monash University faculty of medicine, nursing and the widow of abortion campaigner Dr Bertram Wainer, wrote about the long, dangerous and difficult campaign  undertaken by Bertram to change public awareness, to ensure women who needed to end a pregnancy could do so with safety, dignity and affordable care. Jo Wainer concludes her opinion piece:

Section 8 requires health professionals, including doctors who preference the wellbeing of the foetus over that of the woman, to tell her so and give her information about another doctor she can see who will treat her as a person capable of making her own morally sound decisions. It is a small thing to ask.

But it is no small thing to those who seek to overturn the contentious sections of the 2008 Act of Parliament. I don’t have a real problem with anyone having an abortion – women have a right to choose whether to mother or not and there are plenty of reasons that this may not be in the best interests of the mother, or the child she may bring in to the world. Motherhood can be hard, constant and never-ending. Single mothers have a very hard time with pensions a thing of the past, and society largely prejudiced against them.

But where there is a real problem is with late-term abortions.  One very public example of this occurred in January 2000, when a 40-year-old woman was referred to the Royal Women’s Hospital by her general practitioner. The woman had been told that her 31-week-old fetus might have skeletal dysplasia (dwarfism). Arriving at the emergency department in a state of great agitation she threatened suicide and demanded that her pregnancy be terminated. The abortion was subsequently carried out with the woman delivering a baby girl with dwarfism.

This was an awful case. Today people with dwarfism are to be found in all areas of life. They are parents, teachers, engineers, musicians and social workers. As I was thinking about this case of late-term abortion, I remember reading Defiant Birth : Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics by Melinda Tankard Reist.

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In Defiant Birth, the author tells the stories of women who were told they shouldn’t go ahead and give birth to their babies because of a perceived disability or imperfection. These brave women went ahead and had their children anyway, many of whom died shortly after birth. But they were born in the belief that the life they shared, even for a short while, was worth it.

Abortion is complex but made more so by politicians and lawyers, when really it should be up to a woman and her doctor. But with most issues in the world today, simple resolutions to problems don’t seem possible anymore.


Categories: books, feminism, health, history, media, Media and health, news, politics, social change, women's writing, womens rights

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