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Abortion and law reform

Queensland Bioethics Centre director RAY CAMPBELL, a Catholic ethicist, comments on a recent amendment to the Queensland Criminal Code resulting from a debate over protection for doctors providing medical abortions

SOME people may be wondering where the Church stands on amendments to the Queensland Criminal Code affecting abortion practices and approved by the State Parliament on September 3.

If you have been following the discussion in the media then the odds are you know very little about what is actually happening as the media reports have been full of half-truths, selective reporting and plain distortion.

One thing that is clear is that some people are waging a strong campaign to have abortion completely decriminalised in Queensland.

The legislation adopted by the Parliament is an amendment to section 282 of the Criminal Code. This section of the Criminal Code does not directly deal with abortion.

The section allows that “a person is not criminally responsible for performing in good faith and with reasonable care and skill a surgical operation upon any person for the patient’s benefit, or upon an unborn child for the preservation of the mother’s life, …”

That last section has been interpreted by the courts to allow abortion, but the section itself gives doctors general protection when performing surgical procedures.

The purpose of the amendment is to give doctors the same kind of protection when providing medical procedures.

This is something which has been discussed for some time apart from the issue of medical abortions.

The Government’s amendment inserts “medical procedures” into the above section.

The impact of the amendment is that it clarifies that doctors are not guilty of a criminal offence when providing medical treatments (in good faith etc) even if they have some adverse effect on the patient or an unborn child.

For example, doctors often use a medical procedure (as distinct from surgery) to remove a deceased ectopic pregnancy from the fallopian tubes.

This amendment will ensure that doctors providing such a service have the same legal coverage as do doctors performing surgery for the same effect.

Unfortunately because of how the courts have interpreted section 282 and because of the development of medical practice, the amendment will also cover medical abortions.

In doing this the amendment does not change the present status quo in Queensland regarding abortion.

Indeed in the amendment the Government has been careful to close a loophole that might have been interpreted as permitting abortion for social reasons.

In Queensland, according to the Criminal Code and the decisions of the courts, abortion is not permitted for just any reason, but only to preserve the life and health (including mental health) of the mother.

In light of the above a Catholic or anyone who is pro-life could support the Government’s amendments as providing protection for doctors providing medical procedures in general, while objecting to the fact that this extended to include medical abortions.

Some people might wonder “why bother?” given the number of abortions which take place in Queensland each year (about 14,000). In practice we virtually have abortion on demand (even if the majority might be technically illegal).

First of all it is important to appreciate the educational role of legislation.

The fact that abortion remains as a criminal offence in Queensland does serve an educational purpose.

But it is important to also understand what is the agenda driving the present debate in the media.

Last October just after the legislation was passed in Victoria to decriminalise abortion and to deny doctors, nurses and pharmacists the rights of conscience, a group of pro-abortionists met in Brisbane.

At that meeting they committed to fight for the complete decriminalisation of abortion in Queensland.

Furthermore, if abortion were to be decriminalised it is envisaged that abortion would become part of the medical curriculum – doctors, or at least prospective obstetricians and gynaecologists, would have to perform abortions as part of their training.

Doctors who perform abortions, and there are not that many of them, are anxious that their activities be seen as mainstream, and that there be others involved in doing abortions.

It is also worth noting that similar to what happened in Victoria the pro-abortionists are against independent counselling being offered to women and are opposed to conscientious objection.

The right to choose extends only so far it seems!

Most of those who have been quoted in the media on this issue in recent weeks are people who attended the pro-abortion meeting in October.

Various other groups and individuals have issued press releases, emailed and phoned in order to try and correct some of the misinformation and to put another point of view.

In general they have been ignored, particularly by one or two media outlets.

Thanks to the reporting in the media there are numerous misunderstandings around this issue.

The media has consistently linked the present discussion with the issue of the abortion drug RU486.

Medical terminations have been performed in public hospitals (including Queensland hospitals) for years before the emergence of RU486.

RU486 has added nothing new to that legal situation.

The media also constantly refers to a case in Cairns.

At the heart of that case is an alleged self-medication with the intent to procure an abortion as well as an alleged illegal importation of a drug.

Even if abortion was decriminalised in Queensland it is likely that attempts at self-medications for abortion and illegal importation would still be illegal.

It is a sad case, but irrelevant to the present debate.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists played a significant role in facilitating the change of law in Victoria and they are trying to play the same role in Queensland.

Many, many doctors disagree with the stance being taken by the executive of the college, but once again, their voices are being omitted from the media coverage.

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