Will Australia Vote to Roll Back Abortion With Infant Viability Bill?

Member of Parliament Rachel Carling-Jenkins takes fight to change one of the world’s laxest abortion laws.

Rachel Carling-Jenkins is a member for Western Metropolitan in the Victorian State Parliament in Australia, representing the Democratic Labour Party.
Rachel Carling-Jenkins is a member for Western Metropolitan in the Victorian State Parliament in Australia, representing the Democratic Labour Party. (photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

MELBOURNE, Australia — An Australian state is the site of an uphill legislative battle to roll back one of the most permissive abortion regimes in the world, less than a decade after its legal introduction.

Victoria’s upper house of parliament will vote May 25 on a bill that would ban abortions after 24 weeks, when a fetus can be delivered with good survival prospects, and mandate holistic care for women facing crisis pregnancies.

The current law allows for abortion up until birth, with almost no practical restrictions, mirroring only a handful of U.S. states without time limits. While individual politicians have previously floated plans to tighten access to abortion, the Infant Viability Bill marks the first time the state parliament in Melbourne will consider curtailing the law that was passed in 2008.

“At the moment in Victoria, babies are being aborted up to birth for any reason, any reason at all,” said Rachel Carling-Jenkins, the bill’s author and the only member of the minor Democratic Labour Party (DLP) in the senate-like Legislative Council, located in Australia’s second-largest city. “So we know that a 37-week baby who was perfectly healthy was aborted a few years ago for psychosocial reasons.”

At present, the law permits abortion for any reason before 24 weeks, or up until birth, if two doctors agree it is “appropriate.” In making their determination, medical professionals may consider “physical, psychological and social” factors, as well as medical circumstances. While only making up a small proportion of the total procedures, there were 338 abortions carried out past 20-weeks’ gestation in 2011, the last year for which figures are available. In 40 of those cases, the aborted child survived birth and later died. Among its other provisions, Carling-Jenkins’ bill would require medical staff to treat infants who survive a termination.

Although Carling-Jenkins is a Pentecostal Christian, the DLP, which espouses social conservatism while rejecting laissez-faire economics, has strong Catholic roots dating to its founding in the 1950s.

“I’m personally motivated for this bill, as well, because of my Christian beliefs — and also because I have two babies that I miscarried who are in heaven,” said Carling-Jenkins, who holds a Ph.D. in social sciences. “And I truly believe that they’re in heaven, which gives me hope, but it’s an extremely traumatic experience to go through. So that has motivated me a lot, I will admit, on life issues.”


Public Support

The minister of Parliament also claims to have the public on her side, citing a March opinion poll of 600 Victorians that found 64% to be opposed to abortion after 20 weeks. While abortion has not been as explosive of a political issue in Australia as the United States overall — with strong public support for legal abortion in the early stages of pregnancy — surveys have indicated widespread reservations about late-gestation terminations.

Carling-Jenkins has the support of the local Catholic Church, which has encouraged parishioners to petition their local representatives to vote for the proposed law change.

“Rachel and her staff have really led this, and the archbishop is supportive of their efforts and commends their efforts, but really, within the Church, our job has been just to raise awareness of what this group of laypeople is doing,” said Shane Healy, the director of media and communications for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.

While the Church has supported the effort, Healy stresses that the campaign has been led by laity, featuring people of all faiths as well as none.

“Maybe our protests have fallen a little bit on deaf ears in the past because there, maybe, wasn’t a well enough united front in the argument against it,” he said. “This time, there really does appear to be a very united front, from a variety of areas. We are delighted with the progress that has been made.”

With the center-left state government firmly opposed to any change, however, the bill faces a narrow path to success in parliament.


‘No Need’ to Change Existing Law

A spokeswoman for the Labor Party Minister for Health Jill Hennessy did not reply to inquiries by the Register, but the minister has been previously quoted as saying there is “no need” to change the existing law, which she believes already has “proper checks and balances.” Emily’s List, an abortion-advocacy group that helped pass the 2008 law by campaigning for pro-choice candidates, also declined to comment.

While the Labor Party, which liberalized the law eight years ago, does not have a majority in the upper house, it is likely to be joined by several minor parties in opposing the bill. In Victoria, often regarded as one of the most liberal of Australia’s six states and two territories, the bill can’t necessarily rely on the votes of the center-right Liberal Party either. Any hope of success rests on the main parties, both of which have pro-life members, granting MPs a free vote. Should the bill pass the upper house (Senate), it would face a perhaps even tougher passage in the Legislative Assembly, the lower chamber.

Carling-Jenkins acknowledges that her bill faces a tough passage, but she believes the ultimate vote will be close.

“I am not giving up on the bill at the moment,” she said. “There is always hope; and at the moment, the vote is very close.”

The MP also has her sights on the long-term fight. With the pro-life movement having been on the back burner in recent years in Victoria, she believes the current debate can bolster change for the future.

“I think this issue could become quite a large election issue, which will see more conservatives going into the upper house and will see a change of government in the lower house.”

Register correspondent John Power writes from Melbourne, Australia.