Anna Krohn: the muddying of choice

15 Oct 2008

By The Record

Last week a tram trundled past Parliament House in Melbourne bearing a striking but under the circumstances ironically timed message.

It was a promotion for a blood bank.  On it stood what appeared to be an enthusiastic looking nurse and her dialogue box proclaimed: “Today I helped to save the life of an unborn child.”
The promotion was effective because it tapped into some residual and shared Australian attitudes.  One is the high degree of respect and trust with which the nursing profession is viewed in this country.  Nurses regularly top popular surveys of “most respected professions”. 
The second is the admiration we have for altruistic but “ordinary” people in general and the giving of blood in particular.  In Australia there is strong resistance to the idea of payment or undue incentive for such “giving”.
What is most notable about the large banner though, is that despite the widespread practice of abortion in Australia, we are nonetheless encouraged to see the high moral worth of decisions which contribute to the life and well being of the unborn and their mothers.
This “kindly” advertisement does expose the profound ethical ambiguity towards the practice of abortion, to pregnancy and to the status of the unborn that lies at the heart of contemporary secular society. 
A picture of this confusion and sometimes contradiction is documented in the survey of Australian attitudes contained in Common Ground: seeking an Australian Consensus on Abortion and Sex Education published last year.
The study found that Australians, however compromised their opposition to particular abortions, generally believe that abortion is a regrettable and even tragic “choice.”  In general people somewhat vaguely think that viable alternatives should at least be presented to women in difficulty and that “better” choices should be promoted by public institutions.
In practice this lack of theoretical clarity and moral determination generally means that the “choice” either to continue or terminate a pregnancy is a privatised and burdensome process which very often does not include adequate space or information by which a woman has “freedom of choice” at all.
However the Abortion Law Reform Bill 2008 that was passed 23-17 through the Upper House of the Victorian Parliament last week is legislation which casts the question of “choice” into an entirely different light.
It is neither what Premier John Brumby declared to be the “modernisation” of the State’s law nor the recognition of the current “status quo.”  It will not, as some of the parliamentarians report, simply “remove criminal sanctions from women who have aborted.”
The new Bill is a confused and badly drafted enshrinement of so-called “pro-choice” ideology which serves neither to encourage informed choices for women nor to respect the ethical or medical standards of healthcare professionals particularly of nurses.
One of the most vocal and influential supporters of the Bill was the former Victorian Premier – Joan Kirner.
Joan Kirner is the founding eminence gris of Emily’s List (the pro-choice feminist network).   She and other List founders, declared with “tears of joy” that the Bill represented the fruits of 45 years of campaigning through women’s bureaucracies and organisations.
However it was noted that “celebration” would be premature until it is certain that no “undermining” amendments are also accepted. 
For Mrs Kirner it is important for the Bill not to limit the “right to abortion” whether on the grounds of foetal age, or processes which protect maternal informed consent or because of the conscientious belief of a medical practitioner, nurse or institution.
How is the notion of unquestioned “demand” more respectful to a woman than the opportunity for considered, informed and supported decision-making?
Many of the clauses in the present Bill are absurd or unjust. 
Most oppressive of all is the provision which requires a medical practitioner who has a conscientious objection to abortion to disclose her or his conscientious objection to abortion and to refer the woman to a practitioner “known” to have “no conscientious objection to abortion.”
A number of legal and ethical reports to the Parliament have pointed to the serious conflict this creates with Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights.
Additionally, as doctors, medical students, the Australian Medical Association and nurses have already warned, it treats abortion with less seriousness than other medical procedures (in which counseling, cooling off and safety are matters for consideration). 
It also relegates doctors and nurses to the position of mere technicians who will no longer be commended for having important ethical and medical judgements within their purview.
The Age writer Ray Cassin has rightly observed: Just why do defenders of this provision in the Bill believe it is necessary? It surely cannot be any possibility that a woman seeking an abortion might be unable to find a doctor willing to perform one. That information is already widely available, and there are not even remotely likely circumstances in which it would not be.
The provisions in the Bill limiting the prerogatives of conscience indicate a disturbing mindset, one that finds it offensive that there are contrary views to that which under law will prevail, and which, in practice if not in avowed intent, seeks to suppress them.