A recent study has shown that, while most Australians support the availability of abortion, most believe that the numbers of abortions in Australia are too high and that women are not being adequately informed about the implications, risks and alternatives to abortion, writes Peter Westmore.
A recent study of the attitudes of 1,200 Australians shows that while most Australians support the availability of abortion, particularly where it involves disability of a child, most believe that the numbers of abortions in Australia are too high and are ambivalent about the lack of independent abortion counselling.
The study commissioned by the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, was conducted last December, and a paper summarising its findings was released last month.
It is the first stage of a major study into abortion commissioned by the centre. The paper is co-authored by Rev Dr John Fleming, president of Campion College in Australia and adjunct professor of bioethics at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, and Selena Ewing, research officer at the Institute.
In their discussion of the implications of their study, Dr Fleming and Ms Ewing said, “Polls measuring the attitudes of Australians to abortion have so far generally not been designed to measure anything other than a broad attitude to abortion on demand. Some polls have gone a little deeper, but not to the extent of this detailed social research.”
The study was designed to analyse whether there were differences in people’s attitudes to whether abortion was legal or whether it is moral; whether there are circumstances where abortion should be permitted or prevented; and where there are high levels of agreement in the Australian community on the issue.
The research shows that Australians are in deep conflict over the morality of abortion. On one hand, 7 out of 10 Australians agree with arguments for legal access to abortion based upon women’s perceived rights and the idea that abortion is “a necessary evil”, while 75 per cent agree with the argument that it gives women control over their own lives.
On the other hand, only 15 per cent believe abortion is morally acceptable when the foetus is healthy and there is no risk to the mother.
Abortions in Australia are overwhelmingly conducted for socio-economic reasons on women who are healthy.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, the research was criticised by pro-abortion campaigners, including Eva Cox, a spokeswoman for the Women’s Electoral Lobby, and journalist Leslie Cannold, who questioned the reliability of the research data, and the fact that it had been commissioned by the Southern Cross Bioethics Centre, which receives funding from the Knights of the Southern Cross, a Catholic lay organisation.
In fact, the value of the research was evident from the fact that the researchers acknowledged the polarisation and confusion that exists in Australians’ attitudes to abortion.
The survey was conducted by the Adelaide-based Sexton Marketing Group, which conducted telephone surveys of a random population sample, but selected so as to be representative of Australia, in terms of state representation, urban and rural profile, and age.
It also found that adults who have had children are significantly less supportive of abortion on demand, compared to those who do not have children.
Further, while 75 per cent of Australians believe access to abortion gives women control over their lives, 94 per cent think that all the alternatives should be seriously considered before exercising this option.
Interestingly, most believe that a woman contemplating abortion should seek advice from more than one source (such as a health professional independent of the abortion-provider, a relative or friend, or a professional counselling service); but 6 out of 10 indicate that they themselves would not know where to refer a woman for alternative support services during or after a pregnancy.
Despite the frequency of public comment on the issue, only 22 per cent think they are very well informed on the topic. Despite recent moves to “shut down” public discussion of abortion, most (71 per cent) support greater public discussion and most (76 per cent) believe men have an equal right to public comment.
Analysing the results, the authors pointed out, “One third of the Australian public strongly favours abortion on demand, and another third is somewhat supportive of abortion on demand. A further third is opposed.
“But when asked about abortion being legal in a number of particular situations, most say they do not agree. Clearly, many of those who favour legal access to abortion still have serious concerns about it. They think the number of abortions is too high and favour attempts to lower the abortion rate.”
The study confirmed the difficulty of estimating the number of abortions currently occurring in Australia. Only in South Australia are comprehensive figures kept on the number of abortions, some of which are subject to Medicare rebates, others are performed in public hospitals, and others are conducted by medical practitioners privately.
The study estimated the number at about 90,000 a year, but highlighted the fact that public perceptions of the extent of abortions was different depending on whether people were given a raw number, or the proportion of pregnancies that end in abortion.
The authors found that “even amongst those who favour abortion on demand, most (46 per cent of those strongly in favour and 60 per cent of those somewhat in favour) thought 90,000 abortions per annum were too many.”
One in four pregnancies aborted
But when the figure was put at one in four pregnancies ending in termination, “73 per cent said this was too many, even though it actually represents a lower estimate (84,000) than the 90,000 abortions per year which 64 per cent said was too high.”
While most people believed that women should make an informed choice about abortion, very few believed that abortion-providers should be the source of their information – although they are the principal providers of pregnancy counselling.
The researchers said, “It follows from the deep ambivalence to abortion which our research has identified that Australians recognise abortion is not the same as other surgical procedures.
“While 96 per cent of the community agree that the health of the woman is one of the major factors that should be considered when contemplating an abortion, there is a majority expectation that moral (71 per cent) and even religious (53 per cent) considerations will also be taken into account. 80 per cent of the public think the consequences for the unborn child is an important consideration, along with the woman’s personal circumstances (78 per cent).
“This is consistent with and underscores the overwhelming expectation of full disclosure of the physical and psychological risks of abortion to the woman, as well as the provision of independent professional counselling and viable alternatives to abortion.”
Dr Fleming and Ms Ewing said, “While on the surface there may appear to be considerable public support for abortion on demand, underneath there is substantial unease about the abortion rate and some of the circumstances in which women avail themselves of this option.
“Australians favour both genuine choice and lowering the number of abortions.
“Taken together this suggests that there is a very large constituency for social policy initiatives which enhance choice without restricting access. In the present context, however, the public’s strong desire for a reduction in the number of abortions is accompanied by a clear preference for this to be achieved by non-coercive means.
“As we have already pointed out, the case for providing a greater range of alternatives to abortion, and informing the community about those options, is strongly supported by the research data.
“Australians are not persuaded that the present situation guarantees real choice. Most by far think women need more information, and more independent sources of information, about the implications, risks and alternatives to abortion.
“Women should be enabled to consider seriously a range of choices, including carrying through the pregnancy to term and bringing up the child themselves (with appropriate community support), or placing the child for adoption.
“Offering genuine choice here will also entail embedding the issue of abortion in wider issues such as taxation and income policy, family assistance, social security, demographic issues, family-friendly workplaces, and improved access to child care.”
The authors said that redefining public discussion of abortion along these lines would represent a radical break with the manner in which the debate has been conducted in this country historically.
“The intensely polarised, ‘winner takes all’ approach that has characterised the debate between traditional pro-choice and pro-life proponents, while not without precedent in Australia, may still be regarded as unusual in the generally non-ideological and pragmatically-focussed world of Australian politics.”
They concluded, “Our research suggests that there is strong public support for the allocation of resources to provide real choices for women.
“Australians are concerned about the lack of real opportunities and incentives to make a choice other than abortion.
“The challenge now is for health and welfare professionals, educators and policy-makers, to respond positively and creatively to Australians’ wish for a new public strategy on unwanted pregnancies.”
- Peter Westmore