Why the stalling on abortion law reform?

The only thing more ridiculous than a law never upheld is a law suddenly applied to an individual case. It is estimated that at least one in three women in Australia will have an abortion in their lifetime. And yet we also currently have a nineteen year old woman (and her similarly young partner) on trial for procuring an abortion in Queensland. It has been decades since the last such case.

Clearly we need to reform abortion laws so that they reflect reality, that is, that abortion is frequently required and used by Australian women (and their partners). Why all the stalling?

Think you know, think again! As Dr Katharine Betts shows in her fascinating research examining twenty years worth of surveys, polls and studiessome of the barriers for reform are myths. (Betts’ interview on ABC radio is well worth a listen and inspired this post).

Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory are the only state and territory in Australia to have decriminalised abortion. Why won’t the other states? And more particularly, why won’t Queensland, where abortion law hypocrisy is terrorising some poor nineteen year old?

Because there will be an electoral backlash?

Nup. Opinion has been liberalising on abortion over the last decade. Almost everyone in Australia believes abortion should be available – either readily (55-59%) or with some limits imposed (roughly a third). A lot of people don’t know that abortion is even illegal in most parts of Australia.

Because Queensland is more conservative?

Nup. Queensland is as pro-choice as the rest of the country, and Brisbane voters are actually more progressive on abortion than Australia as a whole.

Because there will be a huge public outcry?

Nup. There wasn’t one in Victoria.

Because there will be a backlash from Catholic voters (Catholicism being a particularly influential religion in the Australian Labor Party)?

Nup. About 45% of Catholics think abortion should be readily available.

Because there are no votes to be gained, only votes to be lost on reforming abortion law?

Nup. In Queensland a recent poll showed that the pro-choice Labor candidate would gain net 1% and the pro-choice Liberal National Party candidate would gain net 2% of the votes.

Because politicians are more conservative than the community?

Nup. Surveys of candidates standing for federal elections* show that they are actually more pro-choice than the people who vote for them (notable exceptions being the more conservative parties like Family First).

* Similar research on candidates standing for state elections is not available. The Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh has publicly stated her pro-choice position but she also maintains (and she is right) that she doesn’t have the numbers in parliament (including on her own side) to reform abortion laws.

(Cross-posted at blue milk).

Categories: gender & feminism, health, law & order, Politics, religion

Tags: , , , ,

14 replies

  1. I don’t know if the Canadian precedent regarding abortion law would work in Australia, but it may be worth starting a discussion about.
    Essentially , the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that abortion laws were unconstitutional. Our Supreme Court can overrule Parliament if they believe that a law is incompatible with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We’ve been lawless abortionists ever since. (See also, same sex marriage in Canada, except that happened province by province.)
    Wikipedia has a good write up.
    Every province except PEI funds abortion as part of universal healthcare.

  2. Bummer that we have no charter of rights and freedoms.
    If politicians aren’t more conservative than the public, why doesn’t Bligh have the numbers? I’m bewildered.
    Because women are generally able to access abortions and no one was being prosecuted, I think everyone was treating the issue with a “leave well enough alone” attitude. This incident shows how dangerous that is.

  3. Darn it bluemilk, I thought you were going to tell us the reason at the end!
    I guess that means I’ll have to think for myself, and my first thought is that the pollies are actually not as accepting of abortion as the general populace. I’m basing this on the NSW RU486 experience of a couple of years back. It was a conscience vote so it revealed a lot about individual attitudes and a few things really stood out:
    First, the large number of Catholics in parliament, and the large proportion of those who openly expressed their opposition to abortion being available at all. (Julia Gillard, bless her, kept telling people to stay on topic, but so many just couldn’t help yammering on about abortion itself).
    Second, Catholics were mostly in the Labor Party, so any social progressiveness we might expect from that party tends to be partly negated by religious beliefs.
    Third, there are more men than women in parliament, and the majority of people who opposed RU486 were men (Catholic or otherwise).

  4. @Hedgepig, that’s a really good point re: Catholics and the Labor Party, and it goes deeper than the Members of Parliament. Check out the graph down the bottom of this Pollytics post, with particular reference to the Catholic numbers – 50% of Catholics (way higher than other Christians) identify the Labor Party as the party closest to their beliefs.
    Despite – as noted in the myth busting above – many Catholics actually thinking access to abortion should be available, that sense of identifying with the Labor Party is most likely a much bigger and vaguer thing than a single policy, BUT a single policy such as abortion can still be symbolic of that big vague thing. Because we all know the Catholic Church is against abortion, even if Catholics are not.
    Identity is complex. I can certainly see a motivating factor for politicians in trying to preserve that identification, because if someone identifies with your party on a personal level, they’re pretty much never going to vote against that. And if that means you have 10% of the population locked in who otherwise might go the other way as many other Christians do, then why flirt with abortion law reform?
    I think it’s that sense of identity, not the idea that there are votes in the issue itself, that is at stake, and that’s one of the reasons why the Labor Party won’t move on it (Victoria and the ACT excepted).

  5. Huh. I would have thought it was politicians’ social conservatism, considering the considerable disparity between the federal parliament and the general community on same sex marriage (from this Pollytics post). I mean, they tend to be old rich white male people in parliament, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they also tended to be more socially conservative…

  6. Darn it bluemilk, I thought you were going to tell us the reason at the end!

    That makes two.
    Regarding Catholics in the Labor Party: it’s not the percentage of Catholic voters that MPs have to appeal to (for the reasons Rebekka’s pointed out) or the Catholic hierarchy which has relatively little influence as was displayed over stem cells in NSW in 2007, it’s one or two powerful trade unions—the SDA aka. Shoppies in particular—who play their social/reproductive politics very, very hard in the Right factions, using preselection, election help and Ministerial promotion as sticks and carrots. It’s hard to describe how utterly uncompromising and militant they are about their particular trifecta of issues (abortion, euthanasia, same-sex). Remembering that Brian Harradine was on the union’s State Council in Tasmania throughout his tenure as Independent in the Senate gives some idea of what they’re about, though.
    Expel that one trade union from ALP Conferences and we’d immediately jump light years ahead in terms of getting socially responsible reproductive policy, IMO.

  7. Nup. About 45% of Catholics think abortion should be readily available.
    But the anti-abortion lobby groups (which is dominated by Catholics) make up for their lack of numbers with money and scare tactics. My mother is heavily involved with said groups, and I’ve met a lot of the senior figures in the QLD pro-life lobby.
    The fight against abortion law reform in QLD is seen as the last great struggle for the organisation formerly known as Queensland Right To Life (currently going as Cherish Life). It’s basically the entire justification for QRTL’s continued existence, and the people who have built their lives and careers around this endless “war” are terrified that it will end. It’s almost a crusade.
    In fairness, I think that most of them genuinely believe they are doing the right thing for the right reasons, but the rights and dignity of Leach, Brennan and all of the actual people involved seem to have been forgotten. Or perhaps I’m being too charitable.

  8. Thanks Liam, that’s valuable information to keep in mind. Not to go off topic, but it broke my heart to hear Gillard make explicit the ALP’s uncompromising rejection of same-sex marriage reform. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that social progressives will never, ever defect to the Coalition, while those who vote ALP because of a unions/workers history possibly could?

  9. I find myself in the same mind as other commenters in finding parallels between this issue and same sex marriage for the ALP. While not wishing to describe Catholics as a monolithic group, there is certainly a degree of overlap between socially conservative Catholics and social conservatives in general in the ALP. As Liam points out, the SDA is a good example of this, which is perhaps odd given the proportionally feminised industry it claims to represent. So I think that this has a significant part to play in Queensland. As Bluemilk writes, Bligh would be having a tough time getting it past her fellow MPs (not without copping Turnbull strength CPRS headaches, at least). With her government already looking unpopular, doing nothing starts to look like a good idea.
    As for same sex marriage, I feel that much of the impetus for this from the ALP was crushed by Rudd basically ruling it out before his government even got in. I’m not totally sure if his public position is due to his cautious style or a reflection of private opinion but I’d be very surprised if the majority of ALP MPs were opposed to SSM as well.
    As for the voters, I can’t see the logic of that argument. I doubt a large percentage of people vote primarily on such issues anyway. Taxes, interest rates, schools, hospitals and the like are far more likely to interest. Most of those who vote on issues of abortion, SSM, etcetera would probably be rusted on one way or the other anyway (at least in a 2PP sense). Compulsory voting negates the religious voter turnout threat used in US elections. The amount of votes that would switch over from ALP to Coalition would be negligible. So it’s really down to conviction or cowardice in my opinion. On both issues, once the law has been passed, the issue would die off in days. Certainly did in Victoria on abortion, except for that tool who claimed that the bushfires were due to the new abortion laws.

  10. Orlando, on same-sex marriage I think Steeped in Sencha is correct—it was Rudd’s ruling it out before the last election that was the major factor, not the raw electoral popularity or otherwise. Anthony Albanese, who for my money made the speech of the Conference (disclaimer: which I attended) acknowledged that.

    I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that social progressives will never, ever defect to the Coalition, while those who vote ALP because of a unions/workers history possibly could?

    I know what you’re saying, but I think that’s a false dichotomy. Inner city electorates in Sydney and Melbourne are full of people who both support same-sex marriage and vote Liberal for their economic policy, just as a large number of the delegates who got the same-sex marriage amendments debated at the last ALP Conference were from trade unions.

  11. Yeah, sorry everyone about the lack of answers in the post. Betts herself seemed to put much of it down to the lobbying ferocity of the anti-choice brigade. But that can’t be the only answer.
    I agree with Liam’s point about the very conservative and anti-choice SDA influence in the ALP. Kind of scandalous really, considering the membership of the SDA – lots of women, and lots of young women particularly, and they mostly wouldn’t be aware of their union’s work behind the scenes to limit their reproductive choices.

  12. Reading it again, at my #6 I didn’t mean to sound rude bluemilk, sorry. It’s a great post and it deserves to be recycled wherever and whenever the myths resurface.

  13. Liam, you didn’t sound rude at all. No offence taken. But thanks for being considerate and checking.

  14. Adele Horin has written a great piece on this issue in today’s (Saturday’s) Sydney Morning Herald.

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