The Tasmanian parliament has finally passed the Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Act 2013 after a drawn-out committee process and numerous amendments.
The original bill was a highly flawed piece of draft legislation and raised a number of serious concerns with regard to civil liberties and conscientious objection. I detailed them at the time in an article for MercatorNet.
The revised legislation is an improvement, but it does not allay genuine (and reasonable) fears that it will be used to punish dissent more than than it will be used increase access to ‘terminations’.
Doctors will still be required to provide a pamphlet listing abortion-related services, even though most conscientious objectors would consider this as entailing complicity. There will still be 300-metre-wide access zones, and (while the fine for violation of these zones has been reduced) the maximum gaol term of twelve months remains. Most importantly, from a moral perspective, it precludes women in Tasmania from ever being prosecuted for killing their unborn children while at the same time making protests near abortion clinics (including silent prayer vigils) a crime. The implications are obvious.
Supporters of the legislation furthermore made light of pro-life concerns, and the manner in which they achieved their objectives was far from reassuring. For example, Liberal MLC Vanessa Goodwin said that silent prayer vigils were just as harmful as other forms of protest, and Independent Michael Gaffney scoffed at the suggestion that a pro-life sticker could even be construed as a protest. Personally, I think a sticker that says ‘abortion is homicide’ is a much clearer protest than someone silently praying, but apparently we’re supposed to trust that this legislation will be applied in a fair and just manner.
Independent Ruth Forrest stooped particularly low in the final moments of the upper house debate when she took discussion of whether to revisit the conscientious objection clause as an opportunity to publicly name a doctor and repeat unsubstantiated allegations about his opinions that he may or may not have expressed privately on Facebook. It was an unscrupulous tactic, the parliamentary equivalent of malicious gossip. It dampened concern for doctors, and the bill was immediately voted upon and passed. And they are just a few examples of what happened most recently in the upper house.
The nagging question at this time, one that we all need to ponder, is how this could happen. How is it that ALP MLC Craig Farrell, a father of four, could say he thought abortion should be rare and a last resort, then justify voting for the legislation with the observation that sometimes one has to vote for things against one’s heart. Surely the most effective way of ensuring abortion’s rarity would be to place limits on it. How is it that Liberal MLC Vanessa Goodwin could compromise on the one thing that should never be compromised: one’s conscience? What contortions of the mind were required for Independent/Liberal Paul Harriss to acknowledge the unborn child as a human being then vote for a bill that allows late-term abortions for social and economic reasons? How do we get to the point where a Health Minister thinks it’s acceptable to focus her attention on criminalising dissent instead of attempting to fix an ailing health system?
Even among those who voted against the bill there were blunders of logic. Independents Ivan Dean and Tony Mulder were among the more articulate and sensible speakers. They made thoughtful observations and there were even glimmers of perspicacity. However, when it came to access zones they were transformed into feminist despots who upheld a potential gaol term of twelve months as appropriate for daring to object to the killing of an unborn child to the homicidal mother’s face. What sort of conscience allows a person to punish as criminals those who peacefully protest against the killing of human beings?
I have a theory, of course, but it doesn’t have anything to do with women’s rights, foetal development, or personhood. These are major discussion points, and the idea of women’s rights exerts an incredible amount of pressure on us, but they have nothing to do with how some of us justify abortion.
Our moral inconsistency about abortion is a result of our immaturity and fear of responsibility.
When we support (or fail to oppose) abortion, it isn’t about the child. It’s about our fear of being forced to grow up. When we think about an unplanned pregnancy we don’t like the idea of ‘forcing’ someone to live with a situation for which they don’t feel ‘ready’. And this is something pro-lifers in particular need to understand. Pro-choicers are being compassionate – selectively compassionate, it is true, but compassionate nevertheless. They think about the mother (and sometimes the father) and say to themselves: How could I force someone to have a child when they’re not ready? I’m not ready. I wouldn’t want a child right now. How could I do this to them?
Of course, this is a childish way of thinking, but we all do it. The positive aspect is that we’re putting ourselves in another person’s shoes. The negative is that we’re being uncharitable and assuming they’re incapable of handling the situation. Realistically, we’re all capable of taking care of a child, especially if it’s our own and when we have several months to prepare. History shows us that we’re capable of this even in the worst of circumstances.
It’s our immaturity that makes abortion an option. It doesn’t matter when we think the unborn child becomes a person because we’re not actually thinking about the unborn child. We’re thinking about ourselves and how this unexpected event will ruin all our plans. We have become control freaks who can’t cope with the vagaries of life. We are so obsessed with autonomy that we refuse to recognise we are just frail human beings whose lives can be snuffed out in an instant. Children are no longer considered a fact of life but an inconvenient burden. We resent anything that reminds us that we’re not in control.
We will continue to see abortion as an option until we grow up and accept that when a woman falls pregnant her body is merely doing what it’s designed to do. We can try to put it off by aborting the child, but we’re only fooling ourselves. We can have another child later when we’re ‘ready’ but it won’t be the same child, it’ll be another one. The aborted child, whether we consider it a person or not, is a unique individual who will never see the light of day. The child we have later, when we’re ‘ready’, will have a different DNA and a different personality. It will be a different person.
I’m not suggesting that every pregnancy must be greeted with delight, but we certainly need to cultivate a positive attitude towards our offspring, whether planned or not. There’s never a perfect time for having a child, as we tend to fill our lives with all sorts of pursuits. None of us, even the ones trying to have a child, keep our schedules free in anticipation of a child. Few of us ever get to the point where we feel ‘ready’ for the sacrifice entailed in having children. But a mature adult can handle the unplanned in a responsible manner. A grown-up accepts the challenges of life and takes them on. Abortion is just one form of avoidance. It’s our way of pretending the unexpected never happened. But it did. And that unexpected ‘thing’ was a child of one’s own flesh and blood.
So it’s time we behaved like adults, but that entails so much more than just taking responsibility. We also need to assign responsibility. In the context of Tasmania’s abortion legislation, that means talking less about women’s rights and more about parental responsibility. It means treating women as adults with moral agency and seeing them as capable. Women are not helpless frail creatures who are so pitifully incompetent that they can’t carry a child to term and must be protected from criticism, not to mention the truth that abortion is homicide. And it means recognising that no one, not even an emotional and ‘desperate’ mother, has the right to kill her child.