Decision Under Duress

Published in the Courier Mail 10 September 2008


I still remember when we signed the contract to buy our house.

We had a short time-frame to find a place, as we had to leave our rental property sooner than expected.

It is a big decision to buy a house.

As I signed the paperwork, excitement mingled with fear.

I was thankful for the cooling-off period as I could always extricate myself from the situation if I changed my mind.

Big decisions are like that.

Their very gravity energises yet also emotionally clouds the decision-making process.

Add an element of duress to the decision and it is a complex financial and emotional situation.

That’s why cooling-off periods are so important.

Governments recognise this and ensure the protection of their citizens from those who would profit from them.

So I am wondering why the Victorian Government seems reluctant to afford this same protection to women for whom they are supposed to be governing?

Women with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy have to make a very big decision.

The situation they are faced with is often financially, emotionally and socially difficult.

Duress, including the loss of career, the disapproval of a spouse, partner or parent, or any number of other factors combines to make this a very difficult context in which to make a decision.

However, in new legislation drafted by the Victorian Law Reform Commission, which would remove abortion from the state’s Crimes Act, any sense of protection for women, even from doctors for whom abortion is their livelihood, seems missing.

If that seems a naive statement, consider the following.

Professor David Fergusson, a self-described atheist and rationalist, published the results of research in the Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology in January 2006.

The study revealed that 42 per cent of women who had abortions had experienced depression in the past four years, which was almost twice the percentage of those who had never become pregnant.

Further, the research concluded that: “Those having an abortion had elevated rates of subsequent mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviours and substance-use disorders. This association persisted after adjustment for confounding factors.”

Fergusson, himself pro-choice, has stated these findings “tipped the balance of scientific evidence towards the conclusion that abortion increased psychological distress rather than alleviated it”.

So when Victorian Liberal leader Ted Baillieu, who recently stated that the decriminalisation of abortion was an issue “very much dear to the hearts of a lot of Victorian women”, I agree with him.

But not for the reason he would expect.

I think it should be an issue very dear to the hearts of many Victorian women because the proposed legislation is effectively placing them in a very vulnerable state.

The abortion debate, which we never seem to officially have as a nation, has moved well beyond pitting a woman against her child.

It has moved well past emotive images of women waving coat hangers demanding safe abortions.

Abortion is truly becoming a woman’s health issue, as more and more evidence-based research is showing the detriment of abortion on the wellbeing and health of women.

One wonders why legislators and women’s advocates often seem so reluctant to discuss such findings in the public sphere.

Why, when a government should be protecting its female citizens, and the medical profession has a duty to do no harm, are we propagating old arguments and unwilling to engage with the issue truly at hand?

This change in legislation will mean a woman, who may be in distress and under duress, will make a potentially harmful decision with only a doctor who, incidentally, will profit financially from her having an abortion.

It seems criminal really.

Maybe Ted Baillieu should consider that?

This concern is magnified when you realise most abortions in Victoria take place in private clinics, which by nature are businesses and must make a profit.

The number of issues that should, by rights, be thoroughly discussed and considered in relation to abortion is many.

The widespread community discomfort with the number of abortions happening in Australia is one.

Whether women have adequate information to make informed consent is another.

The morality and ethical implications of ending the life of a child in utero is another.

The health implication of abortion for women is another.

With all of these issues patently unanswered to any level of community satisfaction, one wonders why the Brumby Government is pursuing this agenda – abortion up to 24 weeks for any reason, and after 24 weeks based on physical, psychological and social circumstances.

It’s no longer good enough to use old rhetoric when new evidence is at hand, even if the new evidence is uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Women deserve better – much better – than that.

Ruth Limkin is a Brisbane pastor and writer.