Women's March on Sydney 2017 via Wikimedia. 'What kind of society do we want to be?'
On Tuesday the New South Wales (Australia) Parliament debated the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019. This radical bill, which its sponsors are trying to rush through the House, allows abortion on demand up to 22 weeks of gestation, and after that if a second doctor lends his signature to the deed. Liberal MP and father of five Dominic Perrottet put it to his colleagues that “the real question here for us here today is not “Are you pro-choice or pro-life?” The real question is – “What kind of society do we want to be?”
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I rise to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.
Speaker, this is a challenging issue. There are passionate feelings involved – and deeply held personal beliefs. There are confronting stories on both sides that deserve to be heard. And it’s important this debate is conducted in a spirit of mutual respect.
Speaker, this debate has been framed around choice. And I agree. Today we have a choice set before us that goes to the core of who we are and who we want to be. A choice that will define us – as a Parliament, as a place and as a people. And that choice is whether we recognise that the unborn also have human rights.
I believe the purpose of this Parliament is not to be a platform for the privileged, but a voice for the voiceless vulnerable, who can’t speak up for themselves. On this issue, the supporters of this bill are ignoring that obligation – and are also on the wrong side of history.
The human story can be understood as a long winding arc to the transformational truth that all lives matter. That we all possess an inherent dignity – just by virtue of who we are. Male or female. Black or white. Born or unborn.
The best chapters in our history have been when we have recognised the innate dignity of others. But our worst have been when people with rights have decided that others shouldn’t have them too.
The issue of abortion is complex precisely because there are competing rights at play. But this bill today doesn’t recognise that complexity, nor does it recognise human rights – instead, it takes them away. And it takes them from those for whom they matter most – unborn children.
Being a father
I do not come at this issue from a position of judgement. I approach it with an attitude of wonder at the mystery of human life. More important to me than trying to be a good Treasurer is trying to be a good father. (My wife probably thinks I’m a better Treasurer – and Labour probably think I’m a better father.)
The most defining moments of my life have not been here in this chamber – but being with my wife on her journey of pregnancy and then as our children are born. I’ve felt them move and kick in my wife’s womb, months before they arrived. We’ve embraced them, read to them, spoken to them and loved them – all before they took a single breath in this world.
And when we’ve lost them through miscarriage – a grief I know I share with others in this place – we’ve mourned them as well.
I know that not everyone is lucky enough to be in my circumstances. Every day there are women out there who fall pregnant in difficult – sometimes impossible conditions. Poverty, abuse, neglect, violence. I can understand why many of them in that situation would want to consider ending their pregnancies.
But our first response as a community should be to help, not to harm. To comfort, value and support both mother and child. But that’s not what this bill does. It discards any notion that unborn children have any rights at all. And this exposes a fundamental contradiction at the heart of this bill and in our thinking about this issue.
Why is it when a child in the womb is wanted, it’s treated as a precious human life endowed with rights? But when it’s not wanted, it seemingly has no rights at all? This is a question that has not – and cannot – be answered.
The truth is our human rights aren’t subjective. They don’t depend on the feelings of other people or our current circumstances. And they exist whether a piece of paper recognises them or not, with the right to life the most important right of all.
This bill draws an arbitrary line in the sand at 22 weeks. In many parts of the world, the average gestational limit for abortion on request is around 12 weeks, with strict requirements to be met after this period. This bill allows it up to five months.
During pregnancy, lots of couples having a baby will sign up to an information service like Babycentre, to get regular updates about their progress. Here’s what a Babycentre email update for 22 weeks says:
“You’re 22 weeks pregnant! Your baby’s head, body, arms and legs are all more in proportion now, and she’s looking much more like a newborn.”
At this stage, the unborn child has had a heartbeat for months, its fingerprints are formed, it has its own unique DNA, its hair starts growing and it’s been yawning, stretching and moving.
Thanks to this bill, our law will now stand completely silent while the lives of unborn children – up to 5 months – are ended on demand. This is why I cannot – in good conscience – support a bill that stops the beating heart of an unborn child.
A number of supporters of the bill have given the impression that it does no more than codify the current common law situation. Some have even suggested that the bill’s purpose is merely to stop treating women who have abortions as criminals. But codifying the current common law could have been achieved simply by inserting a definition of “unlawful” into the Crimes Act. Parliament could also very easily stop women being treated as criminals – by inserting a new clause into the Crimes Act to the effect that women and girls cannot be prosecuted under the relevant section. Instead parliament has been presented with a bill that goes much, much further.
Late term abortions
There has been a strong focus on the arbitrary nature of 22 weeks, but there is a deeper issue at play. Under this bill, the only meaningful difference between a termination before 22 weeks and termination after 22 weeks is a second signature. As long as another doctor is consulted, a pregnancy can be terminated any time after 22 weeks, up to birth.
Some speakers have said that people raising the prospect of abortion up to birth are simply scare mongering. They have argued that late term abortions are very rare, and only happen when there is a pressing medical need. If that is the intention of the bill’s supporters, that should be reflected very clearly in the proposed law. But it is not.
That means abortions can occur at very late stages of pregnancy in circumstances where there is no medical need – because that is what the law will allow. This is not scare mongering. It is a matter of fact, not opinion. And it is profoundly out of step with community expectations.
For abortions performed after 22 weeks, doctors face no criminal sanctions even if they break the proposed law. For example, a doctor who performs an abortion beyond 22 weeks but fails to consult a second doctor would face no criminal sanction. The only penalty would be a possible professional reprimand.
At a bare minimum, the law should retain criminal sanctions for doctors who fail to comply with the legislated procedural requirements – even if those requirements are far less stringent under this bill. This is consistent with the provisions of the bill that impose criminal sanctions in the case of abortions performed by an unauthorised person.
The other serious issue with the bill concerns conscience. It will compel doctors and health professionals who cannot, in good conscience, facilitate an abortion to do so. Today we learned of a doctor in Victoria who is being investigated and cautioned because he refused to facilitate an abortion – because the couple wanted a boy, not a girl.
Forcing that doctor or any doctor to refer is akin to making them a participant in the act they disagree with – that is not freedom.
How ironic that we stand in this parliament today and give ourselves a conscience vote – but deny that very same right to others. I’ve been advised amendments are being moved on this point and I intend to support them. I will do so, because no law in any free society should compel a person to participate in an action they believe to be morally wrong.
Speaker, the real question here for us here today is not “Are you pro-choice or pro-life?” The real question is – “What kind of society do we want to be?” Hopefully one where new life is cherished, cared for and celebrated. One where we recognise the importance of mothers, the challenges they face, the difficulties they endure. And one where we recognise that unborn children also have rights.
We all have different views on this issue, but we all have one thing in common. We come from a place of great privilege – the privilege of the living. If this bill succeeds and becomes law, particularly in its current form, it will represent the triumph of the powerful over the powerless.
Today, there is a choice set out before this House.
I choose life. And I encourage you to do the same.
Dominic Perrottet is a Liberal Party Member of the State Parliament of New South Wales, Australia, in which he currently serves as Treasurer. He is married to Helen and they have five children.