Are Australians Pro-Choice?

Part One: Trends in Australian attitudes to abortion

Standing at the Lifechoice Oweek stall normally provides a great opportunity for some great conversations with students keen to discuss key ethical issues in our society such as abortion and euthanasia.

While my “survey” of the people coming to our stall was in no way scientific, my general impression was that the vast majority of people who came and signed up to our club, keen to come along to our events, were neither strongly prochoice nor strongly prolife. In fact the most common responses were, “I’m not sure”, “I guess it depends on the circumstances”, “I haven’t really though much/enough about these issues”.

And yet they signed up. This was an encouraging sign to me that students coming to university are willing to approach their time at uni as a time to challenge societies’ ethical assumptions, as well as their own ethical assumptions. A time to be intellectually challenged and hopefully form their own informed opinions on ethics in our society.

Most of those I spoke to had no firm opinion on abortion and euthanasia but most acknowledged that it was important for them to form one, or at least to become better acquainted with the arguments on both sides.

The general trend in Australia seems to be one of increasing apathy, or at least ignorance, about these issues. “Has this always been the case?” I wondered.

The best article I could find that examined the trends of attitudes towards abortion over time is, unfortunately, around ten years old. Nevertheless it is an interesting look on how attitudes were changing between 1984 and 2002.

Participants of the study were asked a variety of questions looking at their attitudes towards abortion in different circumstances, (e.g., should abortion be allowed in cases of rape, when the life of the mother was at risk, when a foetus has a disability? etc.)

The following table shows the results from the study to the question,

“Should a pregnant woman be allowed to have a legal abortion if the family has a very low income and cannot afford any more children?” This question was specifically looking at abortions chosen for financial reasons.

1984 2002
Definitely should be allowed 23% 11%
Probably should be allowed 14% 26%
Probably should not be allowed 23% 34%
Definitely should not be allowed 40% 29%

Kelley, Jonathan and Evans, MDR. Trends in Australian Attitudes to Abortion, 1984-2002. Australian Social Monitor, Vol. 6, No. 3, Sept 2003: 45-53.

Of interest in this examination was that the percentages of respondents who said “should be allowed” (37% for this question in this study) and “should not be allowed” (63%) stayed identical in the almost 20 years of this survey – what changed is that Australians had become less sure of their position. Respondents were far more likely to answer with “probably” rather than “definitely”, regardless of whether their answer was more typically “prolife” or more typically “prochoice”. According to this study at least, it does not appear Australians are becoming more prolife, but they are not becoming more prochoice. What we are seeing is a population that is increasingly “on the fence” about abortion.

The question has to be asked then, if Australians are becoming increasingly apathetic towards abortion why do we see the nationwide push for “decriminalisation” insisting that it is what the people want? Next week we will be looking at Part Two: Do Australians want decriminalisation?

If anything can be concluded from this data it is this: there is an increasing need for our society to be having a conversation about the ethics of abortion, so I am glad that LifeChoice is on campus even if it is merely a tool which causes students to stop and think about these important ethical issues.

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