LATE LAST YEAR, the issue of abortion, and particularly late-term abortion, again dominated media headlines and talkback radio. The debate was prompted, in part, by the ABC airing of the documentary My Foetus by British filmmaker Julia Black, with footage of a doctor performing an abortion. For the next few months, newspapers across the country regularly quoted politicians - mostly male, and many described by their religious affiliations - bemoaning what the Federal health minister Tony Abbott, a "staunch Catholic", described as the "unambiguous moral tragedy" of the abortion tally.
Since then, parliamentary health secretary Christopher Pyne, while querying why babies born at 23 weeks may be kept alive in one section of a hospital and pregnancies of 24 weeks' gestation terminated in another, said abortions "shouldn't be carried out at all beyond 21 weeks". The "conservative Christian" member for the Sydney seat of Mitchell, Liberal MP Alan Cadman, was surprised that "in this day and age (women) are so dumb to get pregnant willynilly". Labor MP John Murphy referred to a "conspiracy of silence" over abortion; Family First chairman Peter Harris called for a national summit on the issue; and National Party senator Ron Boswell, a "committed Christian", said "there is a process that you can use to avoid pregnancy and I don't know why it isn't taken up". Whether Boswell was referring to contraception or abstinence isn't clear.
In Adelaide, academic Dr Margie Ripper, associate professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide and for many years a researcher into abortion issues, began examining the coverage. Her interest was motivated by research done nine years ago with then-Flinders University colleagues Professor Lyndall Ryan and Dr Barbara Buttfield, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council. Published as We Women Decide, it examined the experience of Australian women who had considered abortion and the people providing abortion services.
In that 1994 research, about 150 women were asked to explain the events that led them to contemplate terminating their pregnancy. Ripper says it was possibly the first research conducted where women considering abortion were asked questions that did not mention religion. "Women who spoke to us did not frame their decisions in terms of what their beliefs told them to do," Ripper says. "They framed their decision in terms of what was really in the best interests of a potential baby, whether they could mother at that time and what kind of life they could produce for a baby at that time."
To Ripper, the women's stories showed that, while many (but not all) religions have "position statements" on the status of foetuses and abortion, "... there's a huge disparity between those positions and how people negotiate their faiths and the practical constraints in their lives".
So when it seemed last year that abortion again would become a long-running political issue, Ripper and colleague Dr Kathie Muir began collating newspaper coverage, from October until December. Their research will analyse news-page coverage and letters to the editor, to discern similarities or differences between politicians' commentary - much of which focussed on "late-term" abortions - and opinions from the public.
"Late-term abortion" has no legal or medical definition. Medical experts refer to terminations being performed in the first trimester - between the start of a woman's last menstrual period and 13 weeks' gestation - and the second trimester - between weeks 14 and 28.
In SA, where terminations may be legally performed until 28 weeks' gestation, statistics indicate terminations beyond 22 weeks to be rare; the latest in the 2003 statistics, at 27 weeks' gestation, was due to a foetal abnormality.
"Of all the articles covering abortion, an overwhelming proportion were reporting politicians' views," Ripper says. "And, of all the articles that reported politicians' views, 90 of 130 focused on `late-term' abortions."
Yet, she says, in all of the letters that were analysed, only about 10 per cent mentioned "late term".
"The anxiety - the focus on second-trimester abortion - is almost exclusively produced by parliamentary commentary," Ripper says, pointing out it was "male politicians' commentary, at that", with only four females quoted alongside 29 males.
Ripper - who admits to wondering if most politicians could answer the question, "What would you consider a late abortion?" - believes the implication from much of the media coverage is that "people are murdering babies just before they are born".
"All of the focus in the media about `late term' abortion has been about women failing to make the right decisions," Ripper says. "This whole discussion is about making a moral judgment on people who have abortions and people who provide abortion services."
She suggests that, while politicians say they "are not talking about banning abortion", instead bringing up issues such as "late-term" abortions or Medicare funding, they are looking to do exactly that. She says there is no acknowledgement of the two measurements used to describe length of pregnancy: from the woman's last menstrual period, as used by doctors and in the State termination statistics, or from the moment of conception, which is used in the increasingly common images depicting the stages of pregnancy. When Christopher Pyne - who declined a request for comment - asks that abortions beyond 21 weeks cease, which measurement is he using?
In South Australia, Ripper says, many terminations at around the 20-week mark fall into the second-trimester only because of health-system delays, including an inability to obtain a termination appointment in the "busiest time" in January. The waiting time for a termination at the Pregnancy Advisory Centre is two and a half weeks.
Dr Brian Peat is director of obstetrics at the Women's and Children's Hospital, one of the prescribed providers of second-trimester abortions, and a former provider of abortions at a clinic. He says terminations beyond 20 weeks are performed in this state only "where there are problems about the baby - either the baby has a lethal problem or one associated with a severe handicap".
And, he says, "quite a lot" of these terminations result from the increasingly common practice of delaying an ultrasound that used to be performed at about 18 weeks. At 19 or 20 weeks, the scan reveals more detail - but may also indicate foetal abnormalities. Waiting that couple of extra weeks for a scan places any resultant termination in the "late term" category.
Through his experience as the provider of abortions at a legal clinic, Peat says it is wrong to suggest women do not "wrestle" with the decision. "Abortion is a last resort," he says. "No one wants an abortion. All would rather stay pregnant. But they would need to change something else - their age, their partner, their lives. If they could change that something, they would stay pregnant. And they make that decision as the best thing for the child, as much as themselves."
Nor does he accept that forcing a woman to view an ultrasound of her foetus before any decision is made - a proposal Boswell and Right to Life campaigners suggest may persuade them not to terminate - will alter the outcome. His clinical experience tells him few women are in denial about their pregnancy, and, in fact, most women "wanted to have a look". "They love babies. They would love to have their babies - and if they could change something in their lives they would have their babies," Peat says. "It's just not the right time or the right place."
Ripper says the as-yet-incomplete research has highlighted the "absolute terms" in which the debate has been expressed: that abortion is "the right thing or the wrong thing".
"Even though (quoted politicians) said they wished to move along from the old debate, they spoke in the language of the old debate," she says. "It's very much moral language." But letters to the editor of newspapers revealed that the public is much more willing to accept the complexity of the situation that may lead a woman to consider abortion.
"In these letters, there was much more evidence of moving beyond the old moral dichotomy than seen in any of the politicians' contributions," Ripper says. "Certainly the ones supportive of abortion were saying `Butt out; we've settled this and it's a matter for a woman and her doctor'.
"If (politicians) were listening to them, they would not be listening to religious framings of the problem. They would be listening to framings that look at sex education in schools, at affordable contraception, at how to access emergency contraception."
A Newspoll in The Australian in December revealed that 50 per cent of Australians over the age of 18 said abortion should be available on demand, under any circumstances. Another 39 per cent said abortions should be available to prevent psychological or medical harm to the mother. Only 7 per cent over the age of 18 said abortions should not be performed in any circumstances.
When asked about late-term abortions, 15 per cent said that they should be available under any circumstances, 61 per cent agreed they should be available if there was a threat to the psychological or medical status of the mother - and only 13 per cent said they should not be available under any circumstances.
"It's something so common and so unspoken," Ripper says, "It's hard for politicians who have this lobbying presence to really know that it's something most of the population don't think is their (politicians') business and don't think is the business of religious leaders, either."
Perhaps more reflective of the nation's views, the president of the national assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, the Reverend Dean Drayton, was quoted on February 13 as saying the church rejected"... two extreme positions, that abortion should never be available and that abortion should be regarded as simply another medical procedure", and that it was "not always helpful" to have one blanket view.
Adelaide Catholic Archbishop Philip Wilson said that "the Catholic Church's position on abortion is well known and understood by all", adding that "the practice of late-term abortion is something that should be discussed by the community". (The Catholic Church does not permit abortion in any instance, including rape or to save the life of a pregnant woman.)
"The only people who have a big issue about it is religious people," Dr Peat says. " The only people making a big noise are Abbott and the religious leaders. We have to trust people to make their own decisions."