Are Australians Pro-Choice? Part Two: Do Australians Want Decriminalisation?

Last week we had a look at trends in Australian attitudes towards abortion, you can have a look at that blog post here. This week we will look specifically at Australian attitudes towards the increasing demand from some groups for abortion decriminalisation across the nation.

Late last year Tasmania became the second state in Australia to decriminalise abortion following Victoria in 2008. To some the bill was a great victory, to others an incredible tragedy, but to the vast majority of Australians the bill probably meant nothing at all.

If pressed, the general attitude I found that people seemed to have towards the bill was one of passive acceptance. A typical response, I found, was something a little like this, “Well nobody loves abortions, but sometimes they have to happen and in these cases it’s the woman’s choice and it certainly shouldn’t be illegal.”

This kind of vague acceptance of the legislation got me thinking: how do Australians really feel about abortion, especially the current trend of “decriminalisation”. When it comes down to it are Australians supportive of the move to decriminalise abortion? The impression given by some newspaper articles was that, for the most part, they certainly were.

So abortion was decriminalised and the people rejoiced! Right? Not likely.

In fact, on examination, Australians’ views are much more in line with the law previous to decriminalisation.

So let’s break it down. What, broadly, were the changes that took place after abortion decriminalisation in Tasmania and Victoria?

Decriminalisation of abortion in Tasmania and Victoria meant that abortion is now allowed “on demand”, or regardless of circumstances, up until a certain week of gestation (16 weeks in Tasmania, 24 weeks in Victoria). This differs from previous legislation which allowed abortion only if a medical practitioner approved it after considering the impact on a woman’s existing and future physical psychological health, including an impact from social and financial circumstances.

After 16/24 weeks however abortion is only allowed after two medical practitioners have approved it. Doctors would allow abortions after considering a woman’s physical and psychological circumstances, including impacts from their social and financial situation. Under these circumstances abortion is allowed up until birth.

So the question is: are Australians supportive of abortion law changes which would allow for abortion on demand, regardless of the circumstances up until a certain gestational age?

A 2010 study published in the Medical Journal of Australia broke down Australian attitudes to abortion in the three trimesters.

First trimester Second trimester Third trimester
Lawful 61% 12% 6%
Unlawful 12% 28% 48%
Depends on the circumstances 26% 57% 42%
Can’t say or don’t know 1% 3% 5%

Australian attitudes to early and late abortion, Lachlan J de Crespigny, Dominic J Wilkinson, Thomas Douglas, Mark Textor and Julian Savulescu  Medical Journal Australia, Volume 193, Number One, 2010.

According to this study 85% of Australians think abortion should be unlawful or that it should only be lawful under certain circumstances in the second trimester. Yet with “decriminalisation” Victoria allows for abortion on demand, for every circumstance, till the end of the second trimester and Tasmania allows for it on demand partly through the second trimester.

So what is it that these Australians are saying? They want abortion to be available under certain circumstances and not under others. These Australians would be much more likely to approve of the Tasmanian abortion law prior to 2013 and the Victorian abortion laws prior to 2008 than the laws which apply today.

Australians in this study want abortion to be available but they do not want abortion to be decriminalised as it has been in Tasmania and Victoria.

Abortion is a human rights issue and as a human rights issue it is not dependant on majority opinions. So what, then, does this prove? It proves that to Australian people abortion is not a black and white issue. That Australians think that abortion debate cannot simply be dismissed by saying, “a feotus is in a woman’s body, so it is always solely a woman’s decision, end of story.”

According to this study there are circumstances in which Australians believe abortion is OK and circumstances in which it is not OK. Only 6% believed that abortion should be allowed under any circumstances in the third trimester up until birth.

What are these circumstances? What impact do they have on the morality of abortion?

It is a complex issue and as a complex issue it needs to be discussed, let’s have this discussion!

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