Many Australians have been outraged at new laws in the US state of New York (and also mooted for Virginia), making abortion accessible to full term. However, this style of on-demand abortion available right through to term (and some news sites suggest even during labour), is already prevalent in Australia.

That’s right. Late term abortions (performed after 20 weeks) are already permitted throughout most of Australia and, contrary to popular opinion, it is not always because of a serious abnormality detected in the child, or because the mother’s life is at risk. Babies are being terminated under the heading of ‘maternal psychosocial indications’, which means the mum’s mental health and wellbeing is being impacted by the pregnancy. This can be anything from financial and relationship circumstances to lack of support, high stress levels and fear of impact on career.

What’s more, there is a concerted push to allow more late term abortions in Australia for any and all reasons.

What’s the law in New York?

New York’s previous law allowed abortion up to 24 weeks, after which time the pregnant woman could only access an abortion if the pregnancy put her life at risk. The new law exchanges the word ‘life’ for ‘health’ and also allows for abortion at any point if the unborn baby is considered unable to survive outside the womb. Furthermore, abortions may be carried out by health professionals who are not doctors, including nurses, physician assistants and midwives.

The outrage in the US is no doubt linked to the fact that abortion laws have generally been reigned back in many states since Donald Trump’s presidency, and the fact that the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that famously legalised abortion in America could soon be overturned by the US Supreme Court. According to the Guttmacher Institute, four states (Mississippi, Louisiana, North Dakota and South Dakota) have already passed laws that would automatically ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and last year, 15 states passed laws that restrict abortion.

As the US, for the most part, puts brakes on the no-holds-barred approach to abortion access, Australia flings wide its gates, allowing abortion to term in ways that teeter on the brink of infanticide. The outrage at America’s state of affairs needs to be turned 180-degrees to this ‘Great Southland’ where most women can procure an abortion citing such slippery circumstances as ‘the mental health of the mother’ or ‘financial hardship’.

Late term abortions don’t happen here!

It’s a common misconception used to justify abortion law reform. But if they don’t happen, then why the continued push to change the law?

The misconception was called out in the lead-up to Queensland’s open-slather abortion law changes that were passed last year. It was revealed in 2016 by then Queensland Health Minister Cameron Dick that there were 27 babies of five month’s gestation or older that survived abortion in 2015, only to be left to die. Despite being born alive, life-saving treatment was withheld because of the families’ decisions to terminate. The babies were left to perish in the clinics.

And in WA, 27 babies who survived abortions over a 17-year period were left to die without any medical care. Replying on behalf of Health Minister Roger Cook, Parliamentary Secretary Alanna Clohesy made the shocking and distressing admission in June 2017 in response to a question from Liberal MP Nick Goiran, who wants a parliamentary inquiry into abortion. As part of a two-year investigation, Mr Goiran exposed the late-term abortion of 600 children since 1998 when the state legalised abortion, many for minor physical ailments, including Down syndrome, spina bifida, skeletal dysplasia (dwarfism) and even hand/limb defects.

In South Australia, 2014 data tells us there were 107 late term abortions in the one-year period; more than half (55) were due to the health and wellbeing of the mother (psychosocial reasons), the remainder described as being due to “serious handicap of foetus”.

There will be more late-term abortions in Australia

We can expect to see even more late term abortions in Australia given that the Labor national conference in Adelaide in December voted to have standardised national abortion laws, and to perform more abortions in public hospitals. Shadow Health Minister Catherine King said:

“… it commits us to working with the states to improve the accessibility, legality and affordability of both surgical and medical terminations across Australia, including full decriminalisation and better provision of abortion in public hospitals. It makes it clear that we believe legal, safe, affordable and accessible abortion is fundamental to social and economic equality. It sets out our vision for fully funded and universal access to surgical and medical abortion. And it makes clear that a Shorten Labor Government will use commonwealth and state funding agreements to secure safe, affordable, accessible abortion across Australia.”

Meanwhile, there is a bill being debated this month in South Australia sponsored by the Greens to make later term abortion easier to access. Greens MLC Tammy Franks moved the Statutes Amendment (Abortion Law Reform) Bill 2018 in December and the horror of this law is summarised in a tweet published by pro-choice group South Australian Abortion Coalition:

“new #abortion bill tabled in South #Australia: no qualifications, no upper time limits, no abortion-specific regulations at all”.

NSW will seek to do likewise and decriminalise the procedure after the State election.

Latest figures from the Consultative Council on Obstetric and Paediatric Mortality and Morbidity, Victoria (published November, 2017) gives a snapshot of late term abortion in 2016. The report revealed 310 abortions occurring after 20 weeks gestation in Victoria, of which 125 cited maternal psychosocial reasons, and the remaining 184 for congenital abnormalities. Thirty-three of these babies were born alive and left to die.

Real Choices Australia executive director and doctoral researcher in abortion discourse Debbie Garratt has said that the misconception around late-term abortion is considerable.

“Most of the general public continue to believe that late term abortions are only undertaken when women are seriously ill and their lives are threatened, or when their babies have no hope of survival and will die a more horrific death if allowed to come to term.
“Neither of these is true.
“Most remain ignorant of the reality that women continue to be offered surgical solutions to their economic, social, relational, and mental health problems rather than positive solutions to address their circumstances, even when they are at a stage of pregnancy when their babies could be safely delivered alive.”

Current Australian abortion law by state and territory

Legal to term. Abortions post-24 weeks require two doctors’ approval.

Legal to term. Abortions post-16 weeks require two doctors’ approval.

New South Wales
Abortion remains written into the criminal code in NSW. However, abortion is legal when a doctor believes a woman’s physical and/or mental health is in serious danger (social, economic and medical factors included).

Western Australia
Legal to 20 weeks. Abortions after 20 weeks require two doctors’ approval under the agreement that the mother or unborn baby has a severe medical condition. Women under 16 require that one parent is informed and counselling offered.

South Australia
Legal to 28 weeks with two doctors’ approval based on the pregnant woman’s physical and/or mental health or serious foetal abnormality.

Legal to term. Abortions after 22 weeks require two doctors’ approval.

Australian Capital Territory
Legal to term.

Northern Territory
Legal to 14 weeks with one doctor’s approval, and at 14 – 23 weeks with two doctors’ approval. Not legal after 23 weeks unless it is performed to save a pregnant person’s life.

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