Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Age - "Our state's moral sidestep" by Carol Nadar

IN THE old city watchhouse, a group of people converged one night last month to talk about abortion. Invitations went out to every member of State Parliament. Some did not respond. Some sent excuses. Only one turned up.

The forum was organised by Reproductive Choice Australia, a group lobbying the political parties to decriminalise abortion. The trouble is that right now in Victoria, two weeks away from an election, politicians don't much want to talk about tricky, sensitive issues such as abortion.

Apart from two Greens candidates, the one sitting member of Parliament who did attend was retiring Labor MP Carolyn Hirsh — who only months ago was considering moving a private member's bill to remove abortion from the Crimes Act. Her attempts were soon shut down by Premier Steve Bracks' spin doctors.

Abortion is just one of the moral issues that politicians have been avoiding, and that Bracks has deferred making decisions on, in the lead-up to the election.

Bracks and Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu have told voters what they intend to do about stamp duty, hospitals, schools and transport. But when Victorians cast their vote on November 25, they will be uncertain about whether a Bracks or Baillieu government would decriminalise abortion, make IVF available to single women and lesbians or remove the barriers that make surrogacy virtually impossible in this state. The Greens are the only party willing to show their hand on abortion, declaring it should be decriminalised.

While Victoria has been leading the push in some ethically fraught areas such as stem cell research, it remains one of the most conservative states when it comes to regulation of women's reproductivity. Despite being widely available, abortion remains technically part of the Crimes Act — even though the state Labor Party has decriminalisation as part of its policy platform. And when it comes to issues such as IVF and, recently and publicly, surrogacy, Victoria is far behind NSW.

Lesbians for years have been crossing the border to Albury to fulfil their dream of having a baby. And this week, Labor senator Stephen Conroy revealed that he and his wife, who could not conceive naturally, had left their home state of Victoria to organise for a friend to be their surrogate. The baby was conceived using Conroy's sperm and another woman's eggs and the resulting embryo was implanted into the surrogate.

Surrogacy can help women who have a damaged uterus or can't manage a pregnancy for health reasons. But in Victoria, the law makes it so difficult as to be nearly impossible for couples to enter surrogacy arrangements. Victorian law requires the surrogate herself to be infertile. NSW has no such restrictions.

Many gay Australian men now head to the US, where surrogacy is big business, spending sometimes tens of thousands of dollars to produce a baby.

State Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu this week called for a uniform national approach to surrogacy laws, and said the "state hopping" needed to end. Bracks — along with Health Minister Bronwyn Pike and Opposition health spokeswoman Helen Shardey — will only say he is waiting for a final report by the Victorian Law Reform Commission, which is investigating the issue. The commission has already released draft recommendations describing the law as "irrational" and urging the Government to clarify it. It is not due to table its final report in Parliament until early next year.

The commission has also released a draft report on access to IVF, recommending that single women and lesbians should be granted access to fertility treatment, regardless of whether or not they are medically infertile. Victorian laws now restrict most fertile women from this treatment. While Pike says, rather vaguely, that she is in favour of "equal opportunity legislation", the Government has repeatedly refused to comment on IVF access, again using the final report's completion as an excuse.

Baillieu says he believes IVF should be solely between a man and a woman, although he hasn't said whether those views would hinder a debate on the issue if he were premier.

Victoria was one of the first places in the world to introduce IVF technology and was quick to legislate. As a result though, regulation in Victoria is more restrictive than in other jurisdictions such as NSW and the ACT.

Monash University senior lecture in politics Nick Economou does not believe moral issues are a vote swinger. They're issues that tend to be of concern to a small but noisy minority.

"State politics revolves around financial management, major programs, infrastructure. This stuff about morality politics is the preoccupation of the people actually getting into Parliament.

"This is not a matter that so much has the potential to cause big problems in the electorate," he says. "It's something that has the potential to cause big problems in the major parties."

When Pike, who is pro-choice, controversially decided to impose 48-hour cooling-off periods for women seeking late-term abortions last year, the backlash from pro-choice politicians within her own party was swift and fierce. Women in her own party openly criticised her. She was quickly forced to retreat. No one within Labor would want to make a similar mistake now.

"There is great potential for these sorts of morality issues to divide parliamentary parties," Economou says. "You don't have to have a large number of people prepared to depart from their colleagues to cause a problem. This is the reason why we're seeing an increase in conscience voting in the Federal Parliament, because (Prime Minister John) Howard has exactly the same problem. His party has a division between hardline social conservatives and small "l" liberals."

But whether politicians like it or not, these ethically fraught issues won't go away. The fact that there have been two conscience votes in Federal Parliament this year — on the abortion drug RU486 and stem cells — demonstrates that.

Many quietly suspect that Bracks will allow a conscience vote on decriminalising abortion after November 25, although he hasn't said this.

Medical ethicist Leslie Cannold, a member of Reproductive Choice Australia, believes that by not telling people what his intentions are, Bracks is going for the lowest risk option. As she puts it, he is essentially saying, "Don't worry your pretty little head about it."

Economou says if Bracks and Baillieu make it clear where they stand on issues, it would strengthen their position if they end up governing. "Sometimes the government hand is made stronger in policy debates if they raise issues in an election campaign and then they can claim a mandate for them," he says.

When ACT politician Wayne Berry flagged his intention during an election campaign to put up a private member's bill in the territory to decriminalise abortion in 2001, he found it actually helped him get re-elected. Despite being targeted by the right-to-life lobby, he says he earned the respect of his constituents by telling them what his plans were. "Overwhelmingly, my experience has been that people in the community oppose criminal sanctions for abortion," he says. His bill passed in 2002.

The ACT remains the only region where abortion has been fully decriminalised, although each state has provisions for the procedure to be performed if the mother's mental or physical health is at risk.

Carolyn Hirsh is still hopeful that what she started might be accomplished. "I'm hoping that both parties after the election will act on these very important issues."

In Victoria, the Government has managed, if anything, to unite the warring parties in the abortion debate in their frustration at its non-stance. "If they were proud of what their intentions were, they would tell us," says Denise Cameron, president of Pro-Life Victoria, a member of the Coalition Against the Decriminalisation of Abortion. "Why the reticence? Why the coyness?"

The pro-life lobby have been taking their anti-decriminalisation message to the steps of Parliament, dropping leaflets in letterboxes in several electorates — including those of Bracks and Attorney-General Rob Hulls — and taking out huge advertisements in newspapers.

Leslie Cannold says she just wants the parties to be frank about what they are offering.

"The question is not how do you personally feel in your heart of hearts. The question is if you have power, what would you do on this issue?" she says. "That's what I think voters are entitled to know, on the abortion issue and on every issue."

VICTORIA Can be done under Menhennitt ruling if risk to woman's physical or mental health.

ACT In the Health Act, cooling off period 72 hours after counselling.

NSW Lawful if there is danger to a woman's physical or mental health.

QLD Lawful if for the preservation of the woman's life.

SA Must be approved by two doctors, unless it is necessary for woman's health or to save her life.

WA Doctor can be guilty of an offence unless abortion is performed in good faith and with reasonable care and justified so that woman has freely given informed consent or has social, personal or medical reasons.

NT Up to 14 weeks permitted on grounds of maternal health or foetal disability.

TASMANIA Two doctors must certify that the pregnancy would risk the woman's health.



Carol Nader is The Age's health reporter.

[Link: Original Article]

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